I feel a special connection to this week’s Parasha because it was the one I read on my bar mitzvah. Year in and year out, every time we reach this week’s Torah reading, I remember back to what it felt like to stand in front of the community for the first time, to look out and see friends and family eagerly awaiting my next move, and to know that this event (having a bar mitzvah) was just one more small step on a great journey.
No clothing I wore that day still fits me. My very first suit was too short on me just a few weeks after the big day, and within several years I outgrew the wonderful tallit (prayer shawl) my mother made for me to celebrate the occasion (don’t worry, I still have it!). One item from that day has never grown old and has not once lost its shine: this amazing Torah reading.
Parashat Kedoshim contains an extraordinary collection of mitzvot, stretching across all categories of life: ritual, business, behavior toward the poor and disadvantaged, and so much more. Many of these mitzvot are connected to specific moments in life, moments that come upon us and call for a reaction and we are presented with an opportunity to choose. We can either choose a path of holiness (from where the Parasha gets its name of Kedoshim) or we can choose to not infuse our lives with holiness. The choice is ours.
One mitzvah from our Torah reading in particular speaks to me. Leviticus 19:24-25 teaches us the following, “And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit, that its yield to you may be increased: I the Lord am Your God.” These verses teach us that we need to wait until the fourth year before we can make an offering of fruit to God from the produce of these trees, and we have to wait until the fifth year before we’re allowed to eat any of the fruit.
It is possible that this mitzvah grew out of an understanding that fruit that grows on newly planted trees does not taste good and is therefore not fit for offering to God or for human consumption. However, I believe that there is a different, and much more powerful, lesson to be learned from these verses. We know that agriculture is a long-term proposition — people who are here today and wandering off to a different place tomorrow do not typically plant crops. People who plant crops are people who plan on sticking around for a while.
Fruit trees take even more time than most other forms of agriculture. Do you know where you’re going to live five years from now? Would you be able to plant fruit trees in your backyard, lending an air of permanence to where you live now and telling yourself, and those around you, that you have planted roots (like the trees themselves)?
In addition to this understanding about permanence, there is another layer to this meaningful mitzvah: planting a fruit tree is a way to illustrate the value of caring for a future generation. In Vayikra Rabbah (early rabbinic midrash on the book of Leviticus), we read a midrash (rabbinic interpretation of the Torah) about an old man planting a fig tree. Hadrian (Roman Emperor, second century CE) saw this and could not understand why the old man was planting the fig tree, as it was nearly impossible that he would be alive to eat the fruit of this tree. The man replied to Hadrian, “If I am worthy (if I should live long enough) then I shall eat from the tree, and if not, then just as my ancestors worked for me, so too do I work for my descendants,” meaning that if the old man did not eat from the tree himself, then the next generation surely would do so.
Someone who plants a fruit tree takes the long view, understands that most of what is important in life cannot be accomplished in one day or even one year. Each one of us plants our metaphorical trees, nurturing relationships and ideas along the way. As a great educator once told me, we have no idea what fruit may grow from the trees we plant each and every day. We may only find out (if we ever do!) years afterward. But like that old man in the midrash, someone planted for him years ago, and so he plants for the next generation.
What kind of seeds are you planting? What types of fruit would you like to leave for the next generation? Parashat Kedoshim was introduced to me in the early 1980s when I was preparing for my bar mitzvah, and it has yet to reveal all of its wondrous fruit to me. Perhaps one day it will. Or, perhaps the choicest fruit will be saved for the next generation. Shabbat Shalom.