As we struggle to understand the significance and meaning of the ricin plant’s miraculous growth and collapse, we must stop for a moment to consider why its meaning and significance are so hard for us to grasp. There are some images and metaphors in Tanach that we instinctively and readily grasp and others that remain tantalizingly vague and incomplete no matter how hard we try. The problem may be cultural, our remoteness from the time, place and language in which it was written and edited, or our unfortunate distance from the world of prophecy and Holy Inspiration which, depending on the particular book, informed or dictated its contents. When faced with such a difficulty, it helps to identify the theme and how it is presented in other passages.
The prophetic perception of G-d as planter in Tanach relates to three subjects – individuals, national groups other than Israel and the Jewish people as a whole. G-d’s providence and patronage is often expressed by Biblical writers in terms of planting a sapling or watering, pruning or uprooting a tree.
And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf doth not wither; and in whatsoever he doeth he shall prosper (Psalms 1,3).
For man is like the tree of the field (Deuteronomy 20:19)
Blessed is the man that trusteth in HaShem, and whose trust HaShem is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out its roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but its foliage shall be luxuriant; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit (Jeremiah 17, 7-8). G-d plants and uproots peoples. The rise and fall of nations is in His hand and according to his will. This idea is repeatedlu invoked by prophets, among them, 8 times by Jeremiah. Here is an example.
Then HaShem put forth His hand, and touched my mouth; and HaShem said unto me: Behold, I have put My words in thy mouth; See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, and to destroy and to overthrow; to build, and to plant (Jeremiah 1, 9- 10).
Finally, the House of Israel, G-d’s special inheritance, “the stock which Thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that Thou madest strong for Thyself (Psalms 80, 16)”.
Then the nations that are left round about you shall know that I HaShem have builded the ruined places, and planted that which was desolate; I HaShem have spoken it, and I will do it (Ezekiel 36,36).
And I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disquieted no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as at the first (Samuel II 7,10), Isaiah has an entire chapter on this. Let me sing of my well-beloved, a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. my well-beloved had a vineyard in a very fruitful hill; And he digged it, and cleared it of stones, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also hewed out a vat therein; and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now come, I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; I will break down the fence thereof, and it shall be trodden down; And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned nor hoed, but there shall come up briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of HaShem of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah the plant of His delight; and He looked for justice, but behold violence; for righteousness, but behold a cry (Isaiah 5, 1-7).
The metaphor of Divine Planter is somewhat foreign to our way of relating to G-d, thinking of Him, as we generally do in many different ways but not usually as a Planter. It must have, however, been a widespread and basic idea that would be easily and immediately grasped by readers at early times.
Is the ricin plant supposed to remind Yonah Who planted him and who takes care of him? Does it represent Nineveh, the great nation, “the rod of Mine anger, in whose hand as a staff is Mine indignation (Isaiah 9,5)”, that G- d raised up for a special purpose but whose time of destruction will imminently also come? Could it is some way refer to His plan for his people Israel, “of whom we said: ‘Under his shadow we shall live among the nations (Lamentations 4,20)”.
Perhaps any one of them, perhaps all of them. One thing is certain, the ricin plant serves not just to introduce an opening for Hashem’s rebuke but is in itself a bearer of an important message about G-d’s providence and about who is it that plants, waters and lovingly maintains individuals and nations.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.