By Harvey Sanders
Whenever I read the weekly Torah portions, I always find something I hadn’t noticed before. This week we read Vayerah, full of important narrative, including the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the binding of Isaac. Vayerah is so important that we read a section of it on Rosh Hashanah. Many years, for Rosh Hashanah, I have chanted the story of Abraham and Abimelech having a dispute about a well, which ends with them making a covenant. I was drawn this time to a verse that comes six verses later, Chapter 21, verse 33: “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba.”
Of course, planting trees in Israel is something we do routinely. At Temple Beth Tzedek, we give a certificate to each B’nai Mitzvah, indicating a tree has been planted in their honor. We also give a certificate offering a scholarship for travel to Israel and joke the B’nai Mitzvah should visit their tree when they go to Israel. It was heartwarming to hear that during last month’s Buffalo Israel Experience, the group planted a tree in memory of my dear friend, Leslie Shuman Kramer, our Federation’s beloved Past President, z’l.
But why a tamarisk? While there are 50+ tamarisk species, they are generally a flowering green tree that can survive in inhospitable places, including low water and high salinity – conditions frequently found in the Middle East. Some even say that biblical manna was the sap of a tamarisk. They can grow fast – 9-12 feet in a year – and they have deep roots and can live a long time. In some ways, this is the story of the Jewish people – perhaps even more so during periods of rising antisemitism like today.
The tamarisk is referenced many times in cultural history. According to Wikipedia, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s mother bathes in a bath with tamarisk, items are hidden in a tamarisk tree repeatedly in the Iliad, and the Egyptian goddess of fertility, Osiris, was reportedly hidden in a tamarisk. In addition to Genesis, the Book of Samuel references Saul sitting under a tamarisk tree when he learns David had returned to Judah and Saul’s bones are later buried under a tamarisk tree.
So why did Abraham plant a tamrisk tree? The letters of the Hebrew word for tamarisk, Aishel, are alef, shin, and lamed. Rabbi Samuel bar Abba interprets Aishel to mean an inn, noting the Hebrew words for food, drink and lodging start with those letters. Rabbi Judah notes the Hebrew verb “to ask” is she’al, which comes from the same three letters – suggesting that one could ask for anything one wished at the Aishel. All of the commentators agree Abraham’s intention was to provide hospitality. We already knew this from his earlier interactions with the angels who visited him at the very beginning of the portion, when Abraham eagerly bathed their feet and fed them under the shade of a tree.
This week was the fourth anniversary of the dedication of Temple Beth Tzedek’s home on North Forest. We recently renovated our kitchen and social hall in the portion of the building that had housed Congregation B’nai Shalom prior to its merger with TBT and the move of TBT to North Forest. The building has already hosted numerous community events. With the recent renovations, it will continue to provide hospitality to the Jewish community for many years.
Harvey Sanders is a partner at Sanders & Sanders, a law firm specializing in labor and employment law. He is a Past President of Temple Beth Tzedek and currently serves on the Federation’s Board of Governors.