March 30, 2020

Secret Garden: Blossoms of the Apple Tree

What is the secret to keeping love alive?

I have been asked this question more times than I expected in my short few months as a new rabbi in Los Angeles. Singles and couples sit in my office and ask what Judaism has to say about keeping the emotional and spiritual bonds between two people strong, fresh and vibrant. What is that little something that gives a relationship security and comfort, as well as excitement and spontaneity?

Congregants are disappointed when I explain that I am less than qualified to give an answer to this timeless query. But lately, when thinking about love and how to keep a connection active, breathing and thoughtful, I realize that there is a beautiful, sweet, often forgotten Jewish image left out of the conversation: the hidden boughs and blossoms of the apple tree.

It would be simple for me to talk about the act of presenting someone with flowers as tokens of love, friendship or hospitality. While this gifting can be an important gesture, the apple tree and its flowers convey a much more poignant lesson for those seeking the secrets to developing relationships of strength and fortitude.

Year after year, we look at our seder plates and are reminded of why we include charoset in the telling of our Exodus from Egypt. While many explain that the mixture of nuts, apples and wine is visually symbolic of the Egyptian mud bricks, midrash gives us another answer. When Pharaoh is frightened that the Jews are becoming too great in number, he declares that they should not be allowed to sleep in their homes together. In response to this decree, the Jewish women secretly gather together, lure their husbands into the apple orchards and eventually give birth under the shady and fragrant blossoms of the apple trees. The midrash continues that after each woman gives birth, the earth under the apple tree miraculously “swallows” up each child. When the Egyptians came searching for these new offspring, the children were hidden — safe and comforted by the wafting, delicious smells of the budding flowers and concealed by the embrace of God’s fertile earth.

“Who is this that comes up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I awakened you up under the apple tree; there your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor. Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death. …” (Song of Songs 8:5-6).

While so many turn to the symbol of the rose to express and share love, I see much more value in those ephemeral flowers of the apple tree.

The buds of the apple tree were witnessing the strongest commitment two people can make to each other. In times of stress, worry, fear and anguish, these people rushing to meet in the apple orchards were saying aloud to each other that it would take much more than the apprehension of the unknown and the edicts of another to drive two souls apart. Pharaoh’s decree is likened to contemporary pieces of our chaotic, spiraling lives.

What breaks down relationships today? Stress, frustration, worry, lack of time and control. Those “Jewish flowers” of the apple tree teach us that in the face of those who want to wear us down and in the midst of a world where it seems harder and harder to find time to commit to our beloved, we must extend our branches out, find each other, take that moment, sit in the apple orchard and constantly renew our bonds to each other. While the apple flowers do not give us a direct answer to reinvigorating love, they remind us that love takes seeding, tending and nurturing. “Growing” love is an art form, and just as our mothers in Egypt worked hard to make sure that the Jewish people continued to thrive and flourish, we must understand that the creation and tilling of sound relationships take time, effort, creativity and thought.

Exodus Rabbah teaches that the apple tree brings out its blossom before its leaves. The people of Israel are likened to apple blossoms, for we declared our faith to God before hearing or understanding God’s Torah. A simple flower with a powerful message. In our daily relationships, we have the power to declare that we too have faith in the survival of love. There are no real secrets to maintaining a relationship. Rather, our tradition teaches us that the way to keep our connections strong and our commitments unbroken is to keep in mind that shady, fragrant flower. In times of darkness and uncertainty, tension and turmoil, and in a world that is bereft of those necessary pockets of time, we are reminded to stay persistent, driven, rooted. Easy answers, courageous actions.

While the beauty and fragrance of a flower will not unlock the mysteries of love, I am learning that beneath each hovering petal, another bud of life waits to be unleashed.

I hope that each one of us looks at the people we love and is reminded to take those God-given moments in our lives to smell the flowers, push forward, and dig our roots deeper.

May our love grow with each and every moment.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple where she serves as director of the Sinai Temple Israel Center. She was recently married to Rabbi Erez Sherman, a rabbi at Shomrei Torah Synagogue.