My brother-in-law has many talents. In addition to playing the banjo, he’s a builder and carpenter; attorney specializing in environmental issues; and all around good guy. But his passion is olive farming. This year, with the help of volunteers from around the world as well as extended friends and family from our home at Kibbutz Gezer, he harvested two tons of olives. In many ways he embodies A.D. Gordon’s “Religion of Labor” and the philosophy of Labor Zionism.
Olives are also a rich part of the history of Gezer dating back, biblically, to the time of King Solomon. Solomon built a famous fortress city at Gezer – along with similar cities at Hatzor and Megiddo. We know King Solomon traded olive oil for cedar wood to use in the building of the temple – possibly including oil from olives harvested at Gezer.
Found in the early 1900s is an ancient Hebrew inscription on a small piece of limestone. This important artifact is known as the Gezer Calendar and dates back to the time of Solomon. It is an agricultural calendar which mentions the timing of various harvests – including olives.
Olives are deeply embedded in Jewish history, text and ritual. In fact, olives and olive oil are mentioned well over 200 times in the Tanach – including this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh from the book of Exodus. The opening line talks about preparations for the Ner Tamid: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting.”
We’re familiar with this use of olive oil from the story of Hanukah which focuses on the miracle of the oil used to light the menorah and ner tamid from ancient times. Kindling the lights for Shabbat was done with oil lamps long before the advent of wax candles.
Olives are one of the Shivat Haminim, or seven species (or fruits) with which the Land of Israel is blessed as described in Deuteronomy 6:11 and 8:8. Olives are a symbol of peace, used for food and anointing oil, cosmetics and healing, strong enough to grow into rock, and able to leave for hundreds of years.
Because of their ability to survive in harsh conditions olive trees are often used as a metaphor for the Jewish people. We have survived multiple challenges over the course of our history. Our roots, even in times of physical and spiritual draught, have been nourished by the deep waters of the Torah.
Here at Gezer we recently planted trees for Tu Bishvat in honor of all the children born on the kibbutz in the last year. We also planted trees (including olives) marking the future home of Kehilat Birkat Shalom, a regional congregation of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism located at Kibbutz Gezer. The ceremony was attended by representatives from the WUPJ, IMPJ, KKL as well as members of the community.
As Pesach approaches we celebrate the spring here in Israel. It’s a beautiful time of year with the trees and flowers blooming. The olive tree is somewhat unusual in the fact that it has two flowers for each fruit. While handsome to look at, they trigger quite strong allergic reactions in many people – myself included.
With the onset of spring – and through the allergies – I wish everyone the ability to appreciate the wonders of creation with these words from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:
Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things,
There to be alone and enter into prayer.
There may I express all that is in my heart,
Talking with Him to whom I belong.
And may all grasses, trees and plants
Awake at my coming.
Send the power of their life into my prayer,
Making whole my heart and my speech through the life and spirit of growing things,
Made whole by their transcendent Source.
Oh! That they wound enter my prayer!
Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication and holy speech;
Then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your Presence.
Rabbi Steve Burnstein is the Head of the Center for Leadership Development and Education at the World Union for Reform Judaism. He is also an active member of Kehilat Birkat Shalom in Kibbutz Gezer.