Planting Trees, Planting Hesed

Vayera By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 31, 2012 / 5773

Just after the expulsion of Hagar and immediately before the binding of Isaac, a curious and somewhat cryptic episode appears in Genesis 21. Once again, Abraham encounters Abimelech, the king of Gerar, along with the chief of his troops, Phicol. In a brief and mildly tense exchange, Abraham rebukes the two for attempting to steal his well. As a means of securing possession of the well, Abraham gives the gift of sheep and oxen to Abimelech, and the two of them make a pact. Abraham tells Abimelech, “You are to accept these seven ewes from me as proof that I dug this well” (Gen. 21:30). The exact place is then named Beersheba, since “the two of them swore an oath” (Gen. 21:31). Immediately after the pact, we are told that Abraham’s Philistine ”friends” return their homeland, and then “[Abraham] planted a tamarisk at Beersheba, and invoked there the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33). How may we understand the act of Abraham’s planting?

Nahum Sarna writes that Genesis 21:33 “contains several unusual features and raises numerous questions” (Sarna, Studies in Biblical Interpretation, 221). While highlighting the 12th-century commentary of the Bekhor Shor, who “understood the purpose of the tree-planting to be commemorative of the aforementioned pact,” Sarna rejects this explanation. He explains, “the difficulty . . . is that no analogous practice within a legal context is again to be found in the Bible, nor does anyone else plant a tree simply to memorialize some experience” (222). Sarna goes on to give us profound insight into the text. He writes that, in the ancient Near East, there existed a connection “with sacred trees and pagan cults, especially with fertility cults” (223). All of this became proscribed by Israelite religion, rejected out of hand. Our mysterious text, Sarna argues, represents Torah’s preservation of an ancient story whose goal was to provide us with the origin of the significance of Beersheba as a shrine for the Israelites. Sarna adds, “[t]he careful editing is evidenced by the exceptional absence of altar-building, and the identification of the unique epithet ‘el ‘olam with [the Israelite God], as well as by the exclusion of any mention of a theophany” (225). The implicit message in the placement and editing, on the one hand, underscores the significance of Beersheba; on the other hand, it represents a clean break with pagan practice.

Still, the power of Sarna’s commentary is in quoting later rabbinic interpretation of our verse. Referring to Genesis 21:33, that “Abraham planted a tamarisk (eshel),” he notes that midrash (Genesis Rabbah 54:5 and Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 37:1) makes the claim that our patriarch established a “guesthouse”: eshel (alef-shin-lamed) is an acronym for achilah (eating), shtiyah(drinking), and leviyah (accompanying a guest along the way). Professor Sarna concludes, “An incident belonging to the realm of personal piety in a ritual context has been transformed [by the rabbis] so that it now exemplifies God’s demands on man in socio-moral context . . . the provision of wayfarers and of the homeless has itself been elevated by the rabbis to the status of a mode of divine worship” (226). And so may it be with us. May we continue to plant trees in the Land of Israel, and be generous in tending to the needs of strangers and guests.


The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.