The Sacred Carob Tree of Khirbat al-Lawz

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The carob tree in the old village center of Khirbat al-Lawz

Every Tu B’shvat,
on a hill just west of Jerusalem,
almond trees are blooming their white blossoms
down a rocky terraced hillside.
Stone rubble is laced here and there along its slope –
the only remaining traces of the village
they called Khirbat al-Lawz.

Not long ago this place was populated by
hundreds of villagers who grew
olives, grapes, figs and tended farms
with sheep and chickens.
On the hillside there are two springs
called Ein al-Quff that sent water
down ducts that led to a well
built into the hillside.

Generation after generation
the farmers of the region
would parcel and share this water
to grow their crops.
Every evening after work, it is said,
the men of Khirbat al-Lawz
would gather near a carob tree
in the village center
to talk, smoke, drink and sing
late into the evening.

This life vanished forever on July 14 1948,
when the Haganah occupied and expelled
the people of Khirbat al-Lawz during a military action
known as “Operation Dani.”
The villagers remained in the nearby hills
hoping to return at the end of war,
but soldiers from the Harel Brigade
forbade their return
on pain of death.

Soon after the Jewish National Fund
built a thick forest of non-indigenous
evergreens around Khirbat al-Lawz
and the neighboring village of Sataf.
Today, the JNF website tells us:

This site offers many stunning walks in nature,
where you can also see olive orchards
and agricultural plots on
ancient agricultural terraces.
The two springs that emerge
from the site serve as a reminder
of an almost vanished Hebrew culture
dating back thousands of years.
Here, as in the days of the ancient Israelites,
irrigated vegetable gardens grow
alongside vineyards, olive groves and almond orchards
that need no artificial irrigation
and color the countryside green all year round.

Hikers today will surely not notice it,
but not far from these well groomed trails
you can still find the village center of Khirbat al-Lawz.
The spot is marked by an ancient carob tree
rising out of the thorns and dead grass –
bent and tilted to the side, but still growing.

According to the Jewish sages
it takes carob trees seventy years to fully bear fruit.
When we plant them, they say,
it is not for our own sake,
but for the benefit of future generations.

So this Tu B’shvat, think of a hillside
just west of Jerusalem
where the almond trees are blooming
down a rocky terraced hillside
and a sacred carob tree grows sideways
where a village center once stood.

Then close your eyes and imagine
the wind breezing through its leaves,
whispering to future generations:
you are not forgotten,
the time will yet come
for your return.


New Life is Rising: A Prayer for Tu B’shvat

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Tu B’shvat in the Diaspora: Celebrating the Unseen

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In the land of Israel, the “harbinger of Spring” festival of Tu B’shvat is marked at this time of year by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms through the central and northern parts of the land. Those of us, however, who live in the northern hemisphere diaspora, often celebrate Tu B’shvat surrounded by several inches of white snow and leaf-less trees. Is this any way to celebrate a harbinger of Spring?

I’ll suggest that it is. I actually find it very profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the depths of a Chicago winter. It reminds me that even during this dark, cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees – although this fructification process might not be as visually spectacular as the proliferation of white almond blossoms exploding across the countryside, I believe this invisible life-giving energy is eminently worth acknowledging – and celebrating.

I took the picture above this morning while walking my dog.  They may not be gorgeous almond blossoms, but I’d like to think that these bare, snow covered elms are wonderful spiritual teachers in their own right. All hail the unseen forces of our rebirth and Happy Tu B’shvat!


A Single Tree is Really a Whole Forest: Zen Wisdom for Tu B’shvat

In honor of Tu B’shvat – the Jewish New Year for the Trees – I offer you these lovely tidbits from “Trees and Spirituality: An Exploration” by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, who teaches Environmental Studies at Evergreen State College.

Happy Tu B’shvat – and may your roots discover hidden spheres of growth in the coming year!

Enlightenment
Trees link us to enlightenment. Their ubiquitous shape and form, their persistence through time, and their “rootedness” in the soil, remind us of the connection between earth and the heavens.

Buddha sat mediating under a Bodhi tree. When dawn came, the sun brought enlightenment to him.

As if to reinforce this universality, we see tree forms everywhere – in rivers, caves, blood vessels, lungs – and in the form of Zen Buddhism itself. Historically, temples follow lineages, like family trees. Each temple was brought into a hierarchy, with branch temples under main temples and each level responsible for the one beneath.

Breathing
Like other living beings, trees “breathe.” Through photosynthesis, they help supply the most basic of needs of humans – giving us clean air to breathe. This connection to breathing links trees to meditation and reflection.

The Hebrew word for breath – neshama – is the same as the word for soul. Our spiritual life force comes by way of air and respiration.

Silence
In the services I attended this fall, the most powerful moments were the moments of silence – the time between speaking and hymns. Buddhist silence, samantha – stopping, calming, concentrating – is very important. It is the same as the stillness I see when I look up at a tree on a windless summer day. Trees are rooted in the ground and make no sound. They epitomize samantha.

Emptiness
…In Zen practice, you do not strive to delete all thoughts. Rather, you discover the emptiness that is present within the form of thoughts, experiences and realities.

Most researchers who study the forest focus on the trees and animals – the forms. In contrast, Dr. Roman Dial studies the emptiness within the forest. He uses a laser to get distances to branches and leaves, making images of their “negative space.” These are stunning in their beauty and also in their significance. How does a bird negotiate through space? How does a pollen grain move? Or a termite queen, or a particle or pollutant?

Oneness
According to Buddhist thinking, the idea of a separate “self” is an illusion. There is no external individual being apart from interaction with the world. Although we each have a separate set of perceptions and sensations, the idea that there is a fixed “self” is a false inference.

Trees remind us of this because a tree is a modular being. Most animals, including humans, develop and grow as a single entity. In contrast, the seed of a tree germinates into a root and a shoot, which in turn differentiates into branches, with buds that become the next generation of leaves, flowers, and fruits, and so on. Along the way, genetic material can undergo mutations and changes.

Thus a mature tree contains thousand of separate branch systems, each a separate “lineage,” a separate genetic entity. Fruit growers know that certain branches produce much better fruit. They can graft the best branch and start another tree that will produce to that type. So a single tree is really a whole forest. There are many in one.

Time
Trees help humans tell time; they spell the seasons. Nothing tells us about the passing of time more clearly than autumn colors or the tender green of emerging buds.

Forests teach us about the dynamism of nature – the need to accept change even if it seems to be destructive. When I go out to my forest plots and see a fallen tree – a tree I have climbed a hundred times, taken data from, named – I have to remind myself that this is the nature of the forest. Seedlings will grow in the light created by the fallen giant.

Hidden Worlds
Trees manifest hidden spheres. Their roots are underground and out of sight yet provide support for the tree and serve as the gathering apparatus for water and nutrients. The belowground world sustains the aboveground parts. Tree roots can symbolize that which we hide from ourselves and others – our troubles, failings, ill-health. To be truthful – full of troth – like a tree, we must recognize that these hidden parts are an important part of us, not something to discount, just as soil-covered roots of a tree are essential to its being.

(From Northwest Dharma News, October/November 2002, pp. 10, 13)