Lessons from the Olive Tree

Posted on January 21, 2021

By Hazzan Tisser

In 2016 I had the privilege to participate in the Cantors Assembly’s historic mission to Spain. Dozens of cantors and hundreds of our congregants joined us as we traveled the country for two weeks, learning about the history of Spain and of our people in it, performing in concerts, and meeting the local Jewish communities. It is an experience I will never forget.

Surprisingly, one of the most memorable parts of our trip was a bus ride to Toledo. We drove for several hours through the countryside, eventually ascending the hills to the ancient city. As we drove, passing the occasional village, what stood out were the groves of olive trees spread around us. They stretched for miles, seemingly unending, against the brown landscape. As the tour guide spoke about the trees, he mentioned that these trees no longer bear fruit. Naturally, someone asked why. The tour guide shared with us that these trees were many centuries old, some more than 1,000 years old, and that at a certain point olive trees stop bearing fruit. At the same time, the Spanish people would never think of taking down the ancient trees in order to make room for new, fruitful ones.

Earlier this week our family observed the second yahrzeit of my wife’s son, Isaac. We gathered with friends and family on Zoom to remember him, celebrate his life, and pray. As I thought about it, the olive trees can teach us much about our time in this world and what happens when our time comes, hopefully after many good years. We are given the gift of life. We are each given a unique set of skills, talents, and aspirations. We have everything we need to succeed, just as the tree does. If trees are cared for, receive proper rain and sunshine, they bear much fruit. At some point, our time in the world is up and we will be held to account for all we did in life.

This is a challenging subject to think about or to discuss, but I think our task is clear: to live lives that leave a lasting impact on the world; to live lives which will stand firm in the memories of those who come after us. We can do this by living lives inspired by Torah, filled with the beauty of our tradition. We can do this by caring for the other as much as we care about ourselves. We can do this by passing on family traditions to our family and friends, by teaching them to our children.

The olive trees along that highway in Spain stand firm because the people who live there understand the value of the fruit they once gave, and see it as their duty to maintain the memory of that in a very real way. Next week is Tu Bish’vat – one of the four Jewish new years, when we celebrate trees and the natural world around us. With each new year comes the opportunity to recommit to our resolutions, our values, and to ourselves. Let us use this holiday, then, as an opportunity to reflect on our lives so that me may, as the Psalms teach, flourish like the palm tree, still bearing fruit in old age.

Finally, I hope you will join me for our Tu Bish’vat seder, next Wednesday, January 28, at 6:45 pm, on the Daily Minyan/Shabbat Schmooze Zoom link. We will sing, share readings, eat, and of course thank God for all that is good and beautiful in the world.

“See” you in shul,