In tradition handed down through Judaism, trees have become linked to the overall understanding of the messianic redemption and have therefore become an essential part of the messianic process.
In an 8th century collection of Midrashic Jewish literature called Avot DeRabbi Natan, the mundane chore of planting a tree is raised up to a status greater than greeting the Messiah.
“[Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] used to say, ‘If while holding a sapling in your hand you are told that the Messiah is about to arrive, first plant the sapling and then go out to receive the Messiah’.” (Chapter 31)
In the Biblical commentary the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a), it is written that when the Land of Israel gives forth fruit abundantly, it is a sure sign that the redemption is coming.
God teaches the importance of this idea through example. The first thing God did when creating the world was establish a garden, and as soon as there was dry land he began planting trees (Genesis 2:9). To emulate His act of creation, the Bible gives a commandment to plant trees when we enter the Land of Israel (Leviticus 19:23).
In Biblical Israel, trees were a part of family life. An ancient Jewish custom currently making a comeback is to plant a tree when a child is born: a cedar for boys, with the wish that the child will grow to resemble the tall and upright cedar tree, and a cypress for girls, with the hope that the girls will be graceful and fragrant like the cypress tree. Later in their lives, the branches from the cypress and cedar of a bride and groom are used to make the chuppah (canopy) for their wedding ceremony.
The messianic vision of the Jews’ return to their homeland, therefore, necessarily includes reforestation. The organization best known for planting trees in the Holy Land, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), has become a top-ranked charity with over $100 million in annual revenues from their US campaign alone. It is a massive effort fueled by the simple desire to plant trees in Israel.
Since its foundation with Theodor Herzl’s help in 1901, the JNF has planted over 250 million trees in Israel. The organization has also built 250 dams and reservoirs, developed 250,000 acres of land and established thousands of parks.
Planting trees may seem straightforward, requiring a shovel and a few seeds, but running a multinational non-governmental organization (NGO) is much more complicated. Creating forests requires ecologic research, planning, and water infrastructure.
The JNF’s role requires it to acquire land, and the organization now owns about 13 percent of the total land in Israel. This has thrust the organization into the political arena, a role they generally prefer to avoid. An aversion to politics and a desire to focus on trees led to the JNF splitting away from the Israel Land Authority last year.
The sprawling organization was ailing in 1997 when its present CEO, Russell F. Robinson, took the helm of JNF, becoming the youngest CEO in the organization’s 114-year history. At the time, the JNF lacked central leadership and was behind in business technology. Redundant efforts and antiquated business practices made the organization inefficient, and it was in danger of dissolution.
Robinson’s dual goals seemed contradictory: to bring the JNF up-to-date while returning the organization to its original purpose of planting trees, a goal he feels has deep roots in the Bible and Judaism.
“We are proud of our long heritage as a caretaker of the Land of Israel,” Robinson told Breaking Israel News. “Our timeless stewardship goes back millennia. Today, on our iconic JNF tree certificates, we state, “וכי תבואו אל הארץ ונטעתם כל עץ מאכל” – ‘When you come to the land you shall plant trees’ (Leviticus 19:23).”
“Upon entering the land of Israel in Biblical times, we planted trees. The Torah compares man to a tree “כי האדם עץ השדה” – ‘For man is a tree of the field.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19),” he explained. “Planting a tree is symbolic of planting our Jewish roots in the Land of Israel.”
Robinson added that for the thousands of people who have “gifted” JNF trees in Israel, the trees represent their presence in the land. “When you honor someone by planting a tree on their behalf, you create a living memorial for them in the land of Israel,” he told Breaking Israel News.
The JNF is committed to maintaining and growing the land under its care. “In keeping with tradition, environmental protection and providing green and open spaces for all the residents of Israel to enjoy, we continue on our mission of planting trees and adding to the 250 million that populate Eretz Israel,” Robinson concluded.