The Sacred Trees of Betar

Dear Friends,

I love how stories contain so much more than just what they are “about”.   Like seeds from an ancient world, they have the ability to surprise and grow in unpredictable ways.  Check out this obscure story from the Talmud (Gittin 55a, from Ein Yaakov, 1999 English translation):

“Because of a (broken wheel) from a carriage, Betar was destroyed.  [How did that happen?] It was the custom in Betar that when a boy was born the parents would plant a cedar tree, and when a girl was born they planted a pine tree.  When they got married the tree was cut down, and a bridal canopy was made of the branches.  One day the Emperor’s daughter was riding through town when a shaft of her carriage broke so [her servants] cut down a cedar tree and brought it to her [to replace the broken shaft].  Seeing this, the Jews attacked the princess’s party and beat them.  They then reported to the Emperor that the Jews were rebelling, and he marched against them.”

This story is “about” the reason for the horrifying destruction of Betar, and included as one of the tragedies of Tisha B’Av, and yet, I want to focus on these trees!  I wonder, is every family planting cedars and pines (or acacia’s if you read Eliyahu Kitov’s Book of our Heritage) for each of their children?  Are they in one sacred grove or does everyone plant on their own land? Do they actually cut down the whole tree for the chuppah, or just the branches (dramatically multiplying the number of trees in this numinous forest)?  Can you imagine the power of every village cedar and every village acacia being a beacon for individuals, alive and dead, from your community?

I love how these trees are given sacred power by the simple act of planting the tree at the birth of a child.  Not from mythic stories of the place, or from burial grounds, or being especially unique or old trees.  But from dedicating them by bringing the everyday love parents have for their children to these trees.  I’m swept with emotion just imagining parents preparing these trees they planted with their own hands to become wedding canopies.  What a special way to acknowledge this life cycle transition away from the intense parenting children require, and for the sacred to be given form and honored.

In what ways might we give form to the sacred that includes trees and land?  How do we share this with our children? How about with those who might be driving through and happen to break an axle?  How do we remember to bring these sacred moments into the whole of our life, as reminded by Isaiah who said, “The whole world is filled with Glorious Presence”?

Are the hilltop and tree that witnessed my wedding vows sacred?  Perhaps, they gained sacred status when years later, my children went to summer camp in that same place and learned to connect our wedding stories about the tree of witness, the tent of dance, the room of privacy with that place?

As we learn to re-inhabit our places and weave our lives in ways that includes the land, let us keep in mind this wisdom from the devotional tract of sacred literature called, Practice of the Wild, by Gary Snyder.  He reminds us:

“There’s no rush about calling things sacred.  I think we should be patient, and give the land a lot of time to tell us or the people of the future.  The cry of Flicker, the funny urgent chatter of Gray Squirrel, the acorn whack on a barn roof- are signs enough.” (From the end of the chapter Good, Wild, Sacred)

In what ways are you building relationships with the land?  What insights do you gain from this story of Betar?  Would you share a special story about your place with us here?

David Arfa, Maggid


I have to share a quick story about a class I took at Hebrew College, called Sacred Place and Sacred Space in Jewish Tradition.  I remember a moment where our teacher, Rabbi Nehemiah Polen, held up the Hebrew Scriptures, and said with glee and excitement, “This is why I love this book.  The editors who put it together did not create it like the old Soviet encyclopedia- ripping out the pages describing the old governor when a new governor came into power.  In this book we have Abraham building altars in the special grove of trees known as the Terebinths of Mamre, and God appearing in direct revelation amidst these same trees; and also later in Deuteronomy, we have very different texts like 12:2 that say you must destroy all the sites where they worship their gods- whether on lofty mountains, on hills or under any luxuriant tree.”  Rabbi Polen continues honestly saying that “If I were the editor, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to leave that earlier stuff about Abraham in the text!”

I love how this obscure story about Betar shows us that sacred trees remained alive and powerful in ancient 2nd century Israel.  Reminding us all that what it means to ‘be Jewish’ is very diverse indeed.  Just one story alone, be it from Genesis, Deuteronomy or Betar, like one tree, even if it is a sacred tree, can never describe the entire landscape.

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