Tonight I am going to depart from my usual practice of speaking about the Torah portion for the week. Nor am I going to tie my sermon into a holiday or events on the world stage. Instead, this week I was inspired by our Bar Mitzvah, Jon. Jon’s project consisted of selling seeds in order to raise money for the Humane Society and for animal shelters. In selling the seeds he wants to encourage us all to eat healthy, save the planet and be kind to animals.
I am not going to talk about eating healthy, saving the planet, or being kind to animals, worthy as those subjects may be! But before I talk to you about a subject that touches on Jonathan’s project, I need to tell you about Masada. I am sure some of us have visited Masada, the ancient stone fortress in Israel, sitting on a tall, rocky mesa, high above the Dead Sea. It is a must-see sight on anybody’s first visit to Israel. Masada was built as a palace, and a fortress, for King Herod, in the latter part of the first century BCE. It overlooks the Judean desert on one side and the Dead Sea on the other side. When you gaze over the desert from the heights of Masada, you might wonder how Herod could ever maintain a palace there. Nothing grows in the area as the terrain is arid, rocky and it barely rains. According to the historian Josephus, Herod had to import food and water — peaches, figs, olives, almonds, wine, and birds for meat, to feed his court. In 70 CE a group of Jews who were part of a rebellion against Rome made their final stand at Masada. Rather than being taken captive and enslaved by the Roman army, they committed mass suicide. Masada remained uninhabited since that time – a forgotten, desolate, barren and isolated site.
When archeologists excavated the site in 1963, they discovered something that touches on Jonathan’s project. They discovered a jar buried in the ground containing the seeds of a date palm. Who knows why someone would bury the pits of a date palm in a jar in the ground, but there it was. The scientists examined the seeds with carbon 14. The palm seeds dated from between 155 BCE. And 64 CE. The archeologists took the 2000 year old seeds to Bar Ilan University in Haifa and stuck them in a researcher’s drawer, where they remained for 40 years.
Now the date palm was a very important crop in ancient Israel. When the Torah describes the Land of Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey” the “honey” that it refers to is not bee honey, but the sweet taste of the fruit of the date palm. Roman emperors and noblemen demanded the Judean date for their tables. This ancient fruit was used as a laxative and aphrodisiac, for treating heart disease, lung problems, weakened memory, and possibly symptoms of cancer and depression.
The fruit was praised in song and poetry – Tsadik Katamar Yifrach – the righteous shall flourish like a date palm, say the psalms. The Judean date palm became a symbol of the Jewish nation. Ancient Jewish coins have been found that are engraved with images of the date palm. When the Roman emperor Vespasian wanted to commemorate his conquest of Judea, he minted a coin depicting a weeping woman beneath a date palm. But this species of date palm, so coveted by the Romans and so praised by the poets, a symbol of the Jewish state, became extinct by the time of the crusades.
Along comes, Dr. Elaine Solowey, an agricultural expert at the Arava Institute in the Negev, whose job includes finding new, useful crops that can survive the harsh, dry Middle East climate. In 2005, on Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, she planted the three date palm seeds that had languished for so many years in the researcher’s drawer at Bar Ilan. I imagine that she must have felt utterly surprised, and delighted when one of those seeds sprouted! She nurtured the seedling and by 2015 it was 10 feet tall. Along the way she discovered that it was a BOY!
Yes, date palms come in both male and female genders, and it takes a male and a female to reproduce. Dr. Solowey named the palm Methuselah, after the person who lived the longest life in the Bible. Methusalah – the palm, not the person — was able to pollinate a wild female of a different species. The female palm produced dates! But Dr. Solowey would need a female of the same ancient species to be pollinated by Methuselah in order to re-produce the exact kind of dates that were eaten by Herod in his palace in Masada. She has planted other ancient seeds of the Judean Palm and two of them that have sprouted are female. She hopes that someday she will know exactly what kind of dates they ate in ancient times in the Land of Israel and what they tasted like. Her long term goal is to have a grove of ancient Judean date palms –A veritable Jurassic Park of the Palm!
One could say that the sprouting of this ancient seed is a metaphor for the rebirth of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Just as this ancient seed, long dormant, was brought to life in our own time, so, our ancient people, long exiled from our land, has become young again through the birth of the modern State of Israel. The seed of that rebirth lay waiting for centuries in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. Once the energy trapped in those seeds was able to be released, it transformed the land, and its inhabitants, and indeed all world Jewry, in a stunningly brief period of time.
Or, we could say that the sprouting of that seed is a metaphor for the seeds we try to plant in every boy and girl who is educated at Congregation Beth Shalom, and who stands before us for their bar and bat mitzvah. Sometimes those seeds too lie dormant for a long time and are brought to life again in unexpected ways at unexpected times. We hope that as they journey through life, our students will tend to those seeds and cause them to grow and flourish.