New Year of the Trees, Tu B'shvat Shabbat

Tree of Life image by Emilio Kuffer

Tree of Life image by Emilio Kuffer

On Saturday I visited Shaare Torah for Tu B’shvat Shabbat, a Jewish holiday which celebrates the "New Year of the Trees." Celebrating in gratitude the gift of trees feels very natural for me.

Trees are particularly meaningful for those of the Jewish faith. The phrase “tree of life,” etz chaim, is a common one in Jewish life and often refers to the Torah. It is a popular name for synagogues and Jewish schools as well as the title of one of the major works of Jewish mysticism.

With Jews we share a belief in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden where the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil grow until Adam and Eve make a choice to eat of the forbidden fruit and in the process must leave Eden but will know good from evil, life and death.

The tree of life as a metaphor for the Torah comes from the Book of Proverbs, which uses the term three times, most famously in Proverbs 3:18: Etz chaim hee l’machazikim bah (“She is a tree of life to those who grasp her”).

A special guest to celebrate Tu B’shvat, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, gave an extended sermon as part of the worship service. The following is only a seedling to the full tree of her remarks. Rabbi Cardin kindly sent me notes from her discourse which I’m sharing.

Rabbi Cardin began by stating that each generation has a significant work to do. As Thomas Berry has said, there is no doubt that saving the earth – the climate and the environment – is our generation’s great work.

The story from Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) Rabbah says:

 When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created is here for you. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. 

Rabbi Cardin then explored the meaning of the text from Deuteronomy 20:19

 A. כִּֽי־תָצ֣וּר אֶל־עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא־תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת־עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר׃

When - in your war against a city - you besiege it a long time so that you might capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. For you eat of them, so you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?

·       Lo tashkhit  – do not destroy

 Samson Raphael Hirsh writes:  “The root of the verb is the concept of corruption, not just destruction”.

 Meaning: this wrong action of destruction/corruption is the upheaval of a condition of goodness, rightness, health and its expected impending progress.

 It is changing something’s destiny, robbing it of the possibilities it had  to thrive and prosper. And all that would have flowed from that. No act of destruction is a single act. It has consequences for – and has destroyed - all that would have come to be from it.

Only destruction that leads to construction, to more life and goodness than would have been possible without that act, is permissible.

 And why, Hirsch asks, are we not to cut down this particular kind of tree:  

·       For from it you eat!  Not just food.  Trees give us:

o   Soil, air, shade, water management, carbon uptake, heat management, timber, recreation, comfort, refuge and more 

But how should we read the confusing last words of the verse:

·       Are they a statement? a question?

·       Which is the subject (tree or man) and which the predicate? Who is like whom and how?

 Most commentators read it as a Q with trees being the subject:  

“Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”

And the answer is no. They are defenseless, why hurt them. Even more – they help you.

 Everett Fox too reads it as a question with trees as subject but with a different twist: “Are trees of the field human: can they come against you in siege?”

The answer here too is no. They are not dangerous. Why hurt them?

BUT Tzror ha mor  Abraham Saba (1440–1508),  a mystic and kabbalist sees something deeper

 He reads this as a statement, with “human” as the subject, saying: “Yes, a human is like a tree !”

 “A human,” he writes, “is a tree of the field”. You may not destroy a tree  - why? - for human life depends upon it. For you eat from it. That is, trees give us our lives; we are made of trees. Not only can you not cut it down entirely,  you can’t even cut off the branches for the fruit is from the branches.

 And if A =B (a human is like a tree) then too B=A: (tree is like a human)  

Which brings Tzror Ha-Mor to an astonishing statement:

 “You may not uproot or otherwise destroy the tree at all – the reason being that the tree is like a man. That is, just as a man has a soul that feels, so a tree has a nefesh tzomahat, a soul that blooms, blossoms, grows and feels.  And the sages have taught this [that is, Tzror Ha-mor argues he is not the author of this idea], for they say: ‘When a tree is cut down, her cry is heard from one end of the world to the other.’”

I came home inspired only to be welcomed by the sound of tree saws and a trunk grinder at work felling a dozen massive oak trees on the property across from our home. I would have stopped them if I could. It is devastating to think of the lost habitat, particularly since it will take another 50+ years to replace these trees. We must do better in helping those around us see the value in trees: they clean our water, produce oxygen and sequester carbon, moderate our weather, give us shade, produce food and provide habitat for many, many creatures, prevent flooding, create healthy soils, and more.  Trees are crying; so am I.