what is that tree, exactly?

Yesterday’s post started out with all good intentions to discuss the meaning of the tree from last week’s haftarah. So now I will reveal the exact meaning of the term כְּעַרְעָר.

But first, (oh you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) I must tell you my source. It’s one of the most precious resources in Israel, although, to be honest, there are many. That’s one tiny little part of what makes Israel so special.

The source is Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage, one of the publications of Neot Kedumim. It is written by Nogah Hareuveni, who founded and was the head of the organization until his recent death. This is what the website says about its purpose:

Neot Kedumim — the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is a unique endeavor to re-create the physical setting of the Bible in all its depth and detail. Far more than a “garden” showing various biblical plants, Neot Kedumim embodies the panorama and power of the landscapes that helped shape the values of the Bible and provided a rich vocabulary for expressing them.

So I’m sold right there. I’ve only been to visit there twice, but reading the books has been a continual eye-opener to understanding the Bible in its root, by understanding the land itself.

That’s why I figured I would turn to the books to see if they had any insight about our little tree.

Sure enough, he discusses it in detail on pages 68-71 in a discussion about Yirmiyahu and his birthplace Anatot, on the edge of the desert. He was distinctly aware of the value of cisterns and water sources. That is why the concept of blessing is described as

  בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּיהוָה; וְהָיָה יְהוָה, מִבְטַחוֹ. 7 Blessed is the man that trusteth in the LORD, and whose trust the LORD is.
ח  וְהָיָה כְּעֵץ שָׁתוּל עַל-מַיִם, וְעַל-יוּבַל יְשַׁלַּח שָׁרָשָׁיו, וְלֹא ירא (יִרְאֶה) כִּי-יָבֹא חֹם, וְהָיָה עָלֵהוּ רַעֲנָן; וּבִשְׁנַת בַּצֹּרֶת לֹא יִדְאָג, וְלֹא יָמִישׁ מֵעֲשׂוֹת פֶּרִי. 8 For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but its foliage shall be luxuriant; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

So the opposite of blessing is being without water, for:

As soon as you climb up out of the shady, wet chasm in the direction of Anatot, you are smitten by the heat as with a physical blos. If you look left, to the east, you can see in the distance the wilderness of Jericho shimering in the sun, mottled with patches of green against the light yellow of the naked saltlands. There, far away, between the Dead Sea and Jericho, grows the “cursed lemon of the wilderness,” the a’ra’r עַרְעָר, which represented to Jeremiah the diametric opposite of the “tree planted by waters” [our starting phrase].

The “cursed a’ra’r” in the wilderness is also found in a “prayer of the lowly man when he is faint and pours forth his plea before the Lord” (Psalm  102:1):

יד  אַתָּה תָקוּם, תְּרַחֵם צִיּוֹן:    כִּי-עֵת לְחֶנְנָהּ, כִּי-בָא מוֹעֵד. 14 Thou wilt arise, and have compassion upon Zion; for it is time to be gracious unto her, for the appointed time is come.
טו  כִּי-רָצוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ, אֶת-אֲבָנֶיהָ;    וְאֶת-עֲפָרָהּ, יְחֹנֵנוּ. 15 For Thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust.
טז  וְיִירְאוּ גוֹיִם, אֶת-שֵׁם יְהוָה;    וְכָל-מַלְכֵי הָאָרֶץ, אֶת-כְּבוֹדֶךָ. 16 So the nations will fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth Thy glory;
יז  כִּי-בָנָה יְהוָה צִיּוֹן–    נִרְאָה, בִּכְבוֹדוֹ. 17 When the LORD hath built up Zion, when He hath appeared in His glory;
יח  פָּנָה, אֶל-תְּפִלַּת הָעַרְעָר;    וְלֹא-בָזָה, אֶת-תְּפִלָּתָם. 18 When He hath regarded the prayer of the destitute, and hath not despised their prayer.

Hareuveni then quotes an article of his parents who were botanists at Hebrew University in which they identify this tree as Calotropis procera, also known today as the Sodom apple. They gained this information by talking to the Bedouins who lived in the area.

Its fruit is large and attracts the eye by its wholesome appearance, but it contains only desiccated, silken “threads” that serve as “parachutes” for the dry, brown seeds. Once, say the Bedouin, in the days of “Master Lot,” the fruit was juicy and refreshing. But when men sinned and were punished with the curse of Sodom and Gommorah, this fruit was cursed with them. When mankind repents of its evil ways, the fruit of the cursed lemon will be cleansed and its juice will be as delicious and satisfying as it was before the destruction of  Sodom and Gommorah.

This cursed a’ra’r appears to stand in the arid and salty wilderness spreading its “palms” in prayer. Its broad leaves appear like upturned hands. When the psalmist describes the redemption of Zion from its ruin, he sees it in the form of the a’ra’r praying for redemption like the “lowly man when he is faint and pours forth his plea before the Lord,” and G-d in His infinite mercy does “not spurn their prayer.”

Jeremiah, on the other hand, does not appeal for mercy to rehabilitate the a’ra’r. On the contrary, while the tree planted by waters will “not cease to yield fruit, ” representing the reward of the person who trusts in G-d, the a’ra’r symbolizes the curse of dryness that will fall upon “the man who makes mere flesh his strength.”

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