Tu B’Shevat, which begins this year on the evening of Tuesday, February 3, is the day on the Jewish calendar that marks the beginning of a new year for trees.
Not surprisingly, planting trees is a typical feature of most celebrations of the day. So are eating certain fruits and preaching the virtues of environmental awareness. These are, each and all, an occasion to show appreciation for the relationship between people and nature. While that is an important emotional draw for many people, it is also as good a time as any to bring to mind something-or, actually, someone-having to do with the practical nature of the relationship between our lives and our work.
It’s about a person who scribbled on his prison cell wall that his only regret was what he could have done and didn’t have the chance to do. It’s about a person who risked his life-and ultimately surrendered it-in the interest of his people, so that they could live their lives in a free and functioning society. It’s about a person whose actions in a present time had a meaningful impact on the future.
Who is this person? There may be one or two candidates running through your minds. But rather than run a straw poll among readers and wait for the results, check whether your mind settled on this person: Kamel Amin Ta’abet.
Ta’abet came from a family of Syrians who had emigrated to Argentina, where they built a successful family business. In the 1950s, he caught the attention of members of the community when he announced his intentions to live in Syria and bring inherited wealth with him. With introductions to some of the highest ranking members in the Ba’athist regime ruling Syria during that time, Ta’abet made his move.
By the early 1960s, he was the life of the party. He circulated among the Syrian elite, and that gave him access to some of the most exclusive people and places.
But, it turned out, Ta’abet wasn’t really who he purported to be. That wasn’t even his real name. Kamel Amin Ta’abet, in fact, was Eli Cohen.
Cohen was an Egyptian-born Jew whose parents fled Syria when they were children. During his youth in Egypt, Cohen got connected to the Haganah, the clandestine paramilitary organization of the Jewish community in pre-1948 Palestine. That set him on course to become an Israeli spy. His particular aim was to gather intelligence by infiltrating the Syrian high command.
Cohen managed to keep up appearances for some time. But his espionage activities were ultimately discovered and he was hanged in 1965. His remains have yet to be returned to his family and homeland.
Today, unfortunately, the road to Damascus isn’t any less treacherous than it was in Cohen’s time. Actually, conditions in Syria are so grave that you probably aren’t thinking much about traveling there any time soon, even if you’re looking for some excitement in your life. That goes double no matter how seriously your reading of Daniel Silva or John le CarrÃ© novels gets you thinking that you just might take to a little spycraft now and again.
So, then, why orient yourself toward Eli Cohen, especially at this time of year?
During his time hobnobbing with the Syrian military brass, Cohen learned that troops were suffering from and complaining about the effects of heat. He suggested that a good way to both give them some relief and boost morale would be for the military to plant eucalyptus trees near the fortifications and installations where they were stationed. Syrian decision-makers, who at the time couldn’t seem to get enough of their friend Kamel Amin Ta’abet, thought it a great idea and approved it straightaway.
What they hadn’t anticipated was a serious, unintended consequence that would hit them hard in the next handful of years: during the Six Day War in 1967, two years after Eli Cohen was hanged, those trees served as target markers for the Israel Air Force.
If there is one lesson those of us leading everyday lives can take from Cohen’s example, consider that it may be about actions in the present always having a meaningful impact on the future. Productive people often find themselves constantly thinking through what has to be tackled today to make tomorrow. They-and the trees-know that the start of a calendar year isn’t the only time to make sense of and act on renewal.