Among the first encampments on the Israelite itinerary following the Exodus from Egypt was the oasis at Elim, where the former slaves found “twelve springs of water and seventy date palm trees” (Exodus 15:27). Ibn Ezra catalogues a variety of interpretations of this arborial datum, all sharing the view that there were not merely seventy individual trees: “There were seventy species of palm trees. Others assert that there were seventy for each and every tribe. Still others assert that there were seventy for each and every Israelite!”
I can’t help but wonder if the twelfth century Spanish exegete first offered this commentary on Parshat Beshallach in conjunction with the celebration of Tu B’Shvat, “the New Year of the Trees” (to be observed this coming Monday). Shabbat Parshat Beshallach always occurs in close proximity to Tu B’Shvat. With only rare exceptions, Beshallach either immediately precedes the holiday (as it does this year) or — about 30 percent of the time — coincides with Tu B’Shvat itself.
Ibn Ezra’s language is ambiguous. Did he mean there were seventy palm trees for every Israelite at Elim? Or seventy species of palm for every Israelite?! Either reading is remarkable, yet plausible… as we might conclude from a 2017 biodiversity study in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, a monumental scientific survey that identified fully 60,065 discrete species of trees. Even that impressive number is but a fraction of the tree species believed to have existed in distant antiquity. More than half of extant species are each to be found in but a single nation… like the Dragon’s Blood Tree of Yemen. Island nations like Indonesia, New Guinea, and Madagascar have numerous tree species unique to their territories, due to their geographical isolation. The number of individual trees in the world has been estimated at well over three trillion!
Parshat Beshallach’s reference to both springs and trees at Elim is instructive. Not only did both resources provide sustenance for the (fleetingly) grateful Israelites, the springs also sustained (and help to explain the presence of) the date palms themselves. Trees (like us) depend on water for life. An oak tree can consume as much as 100 gallons of water each day, a giant sequoia up to 500 gallons!
On Tu B’Shvat, we do well to consider the life-giving quality of the trees which our “New Year” observance celebrates. According to Russell McLendon, science editor for Mother Nature Network, in addition to providing food, shade, and raw materials, urban trees correlate with lower crime rates, reducing incidence of graffiti, vandalism, littering, and even domestic violence. Exposure to phytoncides, a chemical released by trees, has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, increase pain threshold, and enhance natural production of anti-cancer proteins! It has been estimated that the pollution removal effected by trees saves 850 lives per year (in the U.S. alone), as well as billions of dollars in health care costs.
Tu B’Shvat is an opportune occasion more clearly to appreciate why the Torah itself is referred to as a “Tree of Life” (Proverbs 3:18). Based on this connection, it is the custom in some (especially Sephardi) communities to mark Tu B’Shvat by studying Torah all night long (see S. Y. Zevin, The Festivals in Halachah). In the same spirit, the cornerstone of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was laid on Tu B’Shvat 1918, and that of the Technion was laid in Haifa on Tu B’Shvat 1925. As Aristotle put it, “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”
This Shabbat, on the cusp of Tu B’Shvat, we recall the experience of our ancient forbears at Elim. Let us note that there are trees alive today that pre-dated the Israelite arrival at that lush oasis! Scientific consensus identifies a bristlecone pine tree in the White Mountains of California as the oldest living organism on Earth, establishing its age today at 5,067! Before identification of that venerable tree, the distinction had been assigned to a neighboring bristlecone now “only” 4,851 years old!
Fittingly, that “younger” tree has been dubbed “Methuselah,” after the character in the Hebrew Bible with the longest lifespan. Methuselah, grandfather of Noah, lived 969 years (Genesis 5:27).
Evidently owing to the prodigious dimensions of his age, Methuselah’s name is also used to designate oversized wine bottles. A “Methuselah” contains six liters (203 ounces) of wine, and stands 22 inches high. It is customary to celebrate Tu B’Shvat by tasting diverse fruits (indeed, as many as are available) and a variety of wines. Kabbalists and practitioners of “Gematria” point out that the Hebrew word for wine — “yayin” — has the numerical value of 70 (yod-yod-nun: 10 + 10 + 50 = 70). The consumption of wine on Tu B’Shvat commemorates the seventy palms (or species thereof) found at Elim… as does the eating of dates.
As we taste our fruit and drink our wine this Tu B’Shvat, may the legacy of Methuselah inspire us to use all our days and years wisely. Let us be mindful that, as but temporary stewards of the environment, we have a sacred obligation to think in the long term… and to act accordingly.
May our worthy efforts in this increasingly urgent endeavor continue to bear rich fruit.
May we remain grateful for the intoxicating beauty of nature… and may we thirstily imbibe the timeless wisdom of Torah.