As Tu B’Shevat approaches each year, and we prepare to celebrate the New Year of the Trees, many of us rabbis love to return to one of our most favorite stories: Honi the Circle-Maker and the Carob Trees. The story, which is first found in the Mishnah, begins with Honi walking down the road. He happens upon a person planting a carob tree, a tree known for taking a very long time (at least 75 years) to produce fruit. Honi questions the planter, “Why are you planting this tree, when you couldn’t possibly live long enough to taste its fruit?” The person politely responds, “Just as my grandparents planted carob trees for me, so must I plant carob trees for my grandchildren.” If you, like me, enjoy this story, I encourage you to watch a delightful video version of the story, please check out G-dcast’s YouTube rendition.
In synagogue life, we are often the recipients of a rich tradition set forth by our “grandparents” – all those who came before us. They built the buildings, they established communities, they fought for a vibrant, liberal, Jewish life in America. I am very blessed to be a part of a congregation with a thriving “Chai Club,” open to all those congregants who have been members for more than 18 years, or who are over age 55. Many of our Chai Club participants have been a part of this synagogue community for more than 40 years.
Our tradition reminds us, many times, to honor our parents and to respect our elders. The Torah includes two specifically about parents: “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long upon the land that Adonai your God is giving to you,” which is found in the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:12) Later, in the book of Leviticus, we read, “You shall each revere your mother and your father.” The rabbis of long ago wondered what the difference might be between “honor” and “revere:”
Our rabbis taught: What is reverence and what is honor? Reverence means that the son must neither stand nor sit in his father’s place, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scale against him. Honor means that he must give him food and drink, clothe and cover him, and lead him in and out. (BT Kiddushin 31b)
In this text, our sages are wisely teaching us to care for both the psychological and the physical health of our elders. This has many important implications in modern synagogue life, and I hope to always do my best to heed our tradition’s words. We must treat our older members with respect, both in word and in action. We should include their voices in our community discussions. We must also ensure that they are well cared for, particularly those who become homebound.
In our rush to cater to young families and to place important and necessary resources in our religious schools, we must also devote time to nourishing our oldest, longest term members. Within each one of them rests the history of the community, the neighborhood, and the congregation. They have stories, wisdom, and a perspective that those of us in Generations X, Y, and the Millennials will only gain with time.
Yes, those of us in our 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s have much to teach them (many of our oldest congregants attended their very first Tu B’Shevat Seder this week, much to their delight and enjoyment). But they are the ones who lived out Judaism’s mandate to “teach them diligently to your children.” Without our seniors, none of us would be here, engaged in Jewish life, and building the foundation that will continue to ensure a Jewish future.
Perhaps you will join me, this week, in showing appreciation for all of the “carob trees” that our older members have planted for us, and then you will allow them to inspire us to continue to plant for the generations to come.