Jewish teaching waxed poetic about the beauty and grace of the tree. It used trees as a symbol of goodness as well as beauty, comparing the righteous person to “a tree planted by streams of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3).
The Torah was likened to a tree: “It is a tree of life to them that uphold it” (Prov. 3:13). The menorah looked like a tree with its trunk and its branches. Ancient synagogues had trees around them, as may be inferred from a statement by Philo of Alexandria who reports that persecutors tried to hurt the Jews by cutting down the trees near their synagogues.
But surely not every tree is handsome, majestic or a source of fruit, shade, poetry or joy. The great philanthropist and champion of his people, Sir Moses Montefiore, learned this on a visit to Russia. Alarmed by the anti-Jewish decrees issued by the Czarist authorities, Sir Moses braved the difficult travelling conditions of the late 19th century and visited Russia to try to plead personally with the Czar.
It is said that the Czar received Sir Moses cordially and they walked through the palace grounds together. The Czar showed Montefiore all the plants, flowers and trees and said he had planted seventy types of flowers, representing the seventy nations of the world. Montefiore naturally asked which flower represented the Jews and the Holy Land. The Czar did not reply directly but told his servants to give Montefiore some thorns and nettles.
Montefiore preserved his dignity and said respectfully, “Your Majesty, I understand your message. These thorns and nettles do seem to symbolise the tragedy of nearly 2000 years of Jewish history. But thorns and nettles have a characteristic which is sometimes forgotten, that anyone touching them is punished…”
Whether the story is really true we cannot be certain. But the fact is that those who sought to hurt the Jewish people ended up being hurt themselves. So many empires tried to annihilate the Jews but they themselves were eventually annihilated. It took time, but it always happened that the mills of God, in Longfellow’s words, ground exceeding small.
This fate should be a warning to the perpetrators of the current strain of antisemitism. We do not wish anyone ill, but attempting to injure Judaism and the Jewish people never succeeded in the long run in the past, and it will not succeed now.