Looking to the future

“Once Honi was travelling on the road, and he noticed a man planting a carob-tree. He asked him how many years it would take before the tree would bear fruit, and the man answered: “Seventy years.” Honi then asked: “Art thou, then, sure that thou wilt live seventy years?” And the man replied: “I found carob-trees in existence when I came into the world, consequently my ancestors must have planted them. Why should I not also plant them for my children?” “

This story comes from the Babylonian Talmud, a compilation of Jewish Rabbinical scholarship (tractate Ta’anit, for the curious).  I found it when I was looking up prayers of blessing when planting trees (I was giving a tree as a house warming gift), but it made me pause for another reason.

You see, I anticipate moving house soon.  And although, in the ten years or so that we’ve lived in our current home, I’ve been happily doing what I can in the garden, knowing that it might only be the people who came after us who saw the full benefit, as soon as we had a definite horizon for moving out, something in my mindset switched.  I pondered only planting things in pots, that I could take with me when I moved.  I wondered whether it was worth maintaining what we had for the next few months, or whether I might as well neglect it, since I could not even be sure whether the person coming after me would want or care about a garden (or indeed, whether the people who bought our house might want to knock it down and start from scratch).  I was more interested in investing in the new place, which I would enjoy, than continuing to invest in the current one, which I was leaving.

So when I read this story, something in it niggled at my conscience.  What is the spiritual significance of my garden, and the legacy I leave here?  What does it mean to work for a fruitful future, even on my humble plot of land (and truth be told, I’m a very mediocre gardener)?

I’m not sure I have answers.  Part of thinking about that is second-guessing who might come after me.  Will it be someone who wants fruit trees, a vegetable garden, herb beds, fruiting vines over fences (everything I’ve fantasised about and only partly achieved)?  Or someone who wants something as low-maintenance as possible?  Or someone who wants to keep everything full of natives and encourage native bird and insect life?  All of these have worthwhile dimensions, so which one should I work with as a vision?

But even though I might only be here another three months, I’d rather wrestle with those questions, and do what I can, than write this garden off as no longer worth my attention.  In time there will be a new garden to shape, but for today, I give thanks for the person who planted the plum tree which now gives me a rich harvest, and ponder what blessing I might leave for those who come after me.

Of course, the metaphor extends beyond gardening.  There are many ways in which we plant for a fruitful future.  But I find this story an encouragement; I don’t need to see the fruit of my planting, or even know for certain that it will be enjoyed, to participate in the human chain of planting and blessing and openness to a fruitful legacy not entirely within my control.  There’s something of hope and trust and joy in that.  And that sits better than indifference to all but my own “success.”




3 comments on “Looking to the future

  1. A friend of mine just moved into a house that came with a wonderful garden. As I moved about her new home, I was in awe of the gardener who lived there before her. What an awesome inheritance she left behind. It seems only right that the next one enjoying that garden should continue to care for such a precious inheritance.

    • Joel Nothman says:

      I sympathise well with this dilemma. Honi is the talmudic Rip Van Winkle, in case you missed the part where the cynical Honi then goes to sleep and awakes 70 years later to see the carob-planter’s descendants. Since Rabbinic Judaism tends to frame much of its lore in terms of its law and practice, I’ll note the analogous halakha: one is expected to adorn the doorposts of their house with a parchment containing the Shema text, and despite the expense of that parchment, the law states that one should leave it on the doorpost when ceasing to reside there (unless, the substantial caveat says, the next resident is likely to be non-Jewish).

      • paidiske says:

        No, I missed that bit! While I found the story I quoted above in many places commenting on Tu B’Shevat and planting trees, the whole story in its Talmudic context was harder for me to find (of course, I’m not expert on the Talmud, and I needed it in English!)

        I did find some stuff about how this helped Honi understand the exile, as the time between planting and fruitfulness, but I confess I didn’t entirely understand that either.

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