Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Listening to the Trees on Tu B’Shevat

Several years ago, I had the zechus of writing a Tu B’Shevat piece in these pages. In it we explored the surprising affinity between man and tree, even in the secular world. The Torah (Devorim 20:19) taught this long ago when it recorded that “man is like a tree,” and Chazal revealed many layers of this profound relationship. Please allow me to return for a moment to one scientist’s view and, in the spirit of ain bais hamedrash bli chiddush, to explore a new approach.

A scientist named David Quammen had just climbed the second tallest tree in the world and recorded his emotions upon descending. “As I stood there, the President (the nickname given to this tree by its explorers) released a dollop of melting snow from a high branch. The snow scattered as it fell, dissipating into tiny flecks and crystals, catching the light as they tumbled toward me. ‘Gezuntheit,’ I said” (“Scaling a Giant,” National Geographic, December 12, 2012, page 41).

The gist of the rest of his “conversation” and reflections about the President revealed a deep affection and connection to this representative of eitz hasodeh, but we wondered together what could possibly cause a gentile dispassionate scholar to develop such an emotional and visceral connection to something other experts had spoken of dismissively as “a big plant with a stick up the middle” (Colin Tudge, The Tree, 2005, page 3).

I must admit that when I first wrote about this, I, too, was emotional about trees because of their fallen state after Hurricane Sandy, which we in Cedarhurst experienced with devastating results. I expressed my raw feelings as follows:

“As I walked around my neighborhood, I couldn’t help but notice the trees. Beyond the destroyed homes, the endless piles of rubble, the detritus of eviscerated lives, the fallen trees were haunting. Almost human in their pain, in their lost dignity, the now-horizontal trees told their own story of distress. The once-majestic oaks, the elegant maples, the hardy birches no longer sang their shirah. Although their song in the universal symphony had been silenced, I felt as if they were whispering, ‘Imo anochi b’tzarah – We, too, are suffering and we feel your pain as well.’”

I hope never to have to identify with the trees in this way again, but I now have another insight into what we can learn from them. First of all, the Chortkover Rebbe, Rav Nochum Mordechai, writes that a tree is a physical object, but it represents both man and the Torah, as the posuk says, “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it” (Mishlei 3:18). “Therefore,” he continues, “when man binds the gashmiyos (physical) to the ruchniyus (spiritual), he sweetens all that is bitter and creates a bond with all the generations” (Doresh Tov, Shemini Atzeres, page 20). One of the commentaries upon the Mesilas Yeshorim takes this into the practical realm of mussar and our daily avodas Hashem: “Through the Torah/man/tree equation, Hashem is teaching us that in order to put down strong roots and grow properly, man must first plant seeds. Then he must wait patiently. At first, he will not see any result from his labors. But then his work will bear fruits and wonderful results” (Ohr Layeshorim, page 43).

Thus, we, too, must plant, irrigate, maintain, and then let the Creator take over. It may take time for what we have done to produce the desired product, but that is the nature of our present world. Chazal tell us that both in Gan Eden and in the future Messianic age, all trees will bear fruit and the result will be immediate. However, at the moment, we must simply do our part and show bitachon – true faith – that the Creator knows what He is doing. For this reason, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rav Moshe Yehoshua Hager, teaches that “both Shabbos Shirah and Tu B’Shevat remind us to do teshuvah” (Otzar Divrei Rabbeinu 5750, page 115). In one of the most elaborate and lengthy essays on this subject, one of the recent rebbes of Gur, the Pnei Menachem, whom I was privileged to meet, explores our relationship with the tree in a pragmatic and profound Chassidic way.

Writing about Tu B’Shevat, Rav Pinchos Menachem Alter (Otzar Drashos Uma’amarim, page 249) says, “The tree is not only like a human being, but specifically like a talmid chochom (see Taanis 7a). Indeed, Klal Yisroel as a whole will become both like talmidei chachomim and the best of trees when Moshiach comes (Yeshayahu 65:22). Therefore, we should access and take advantage of Tu B’Shevat to improve and elevate ourselves.”

The rebbe turns to halacha to prove his point. “The chachomim,” he quotes from the Biur Halacha (beginning of No. 260), “didn’t want to assign the brocha of boreh pri ha’adamah to fruits, although they do come from the ground, because they are so special.” He proves from several halachic sources that the distinction between fruits and vegetables is that fruits grow back each season, whereas vegetables have to be replanted every year. The rebbes’s conclusion from this is that we are similar to fruit trees precisely because our roots are so strong that even when our fruits are temporarily taken from us, they will later return as before… Man, too, although he has a natural tendency toward physicality and the material world, can, through his efforts, overcome this inclination and reach much higher.”

The rebbe poignantly notes that “a Yid periodically lives through bitter and difficult times of testing. At those times, he seems not to be producing any fruits. But eventually his deep roots bring up new powers and strength.” Rav Pinchos Menachem quotes his ancestor, the Chiddushei Harim, that “every single Yid has a point of hidden spiritual power that is never lost.” He adds that this is the meaning of Mogein Avrohom and many other promises we have been given that even if we wander and lose our way, Hashem will help us return to those precious ancient roots.

The Pnei Menachem takes us back to the halachic difference between fruits and vegetables by quoting from a Tosefta (Kelayim, chapter 3). There it is taught, as we all know instinctively, that fruits grow high on the tree whereas vegetables are low on the ground. What does this signify?

The rebbe cites a Gemara (Chulin 60a) that everything in Creation was made in its perfect state, with full understanding of its purpose and ideal condition. “Man, too, the rebbe continues, “was created to stand up straight” (Chagigah 16a). “Furthermore, Pirkei Avos (3:22) teaches that a person whose wisdom exceeds his actions is similar to a tree that has many braches but weak roots. But one whose actions exceed his wisdom is similar to a tree that has few branches but many strong roots, so that even if all the winds in the world attempt to blow it down, they cannot even move it at all. The Maharal, in his commentary there, explains that just as a large tree requires ever stronger roots, so does one who grows in wisdom require ever greater doses of fear of Heaven and virtuous actions.”

The Gerrer Rebbe is not yet finished with his analysis. He raises a powerful question. “Why is being upright like a tree such a good thing?” he inquires. Don’t we know that “one who walks even four amos in this world with an erect demeanor is as if he is pushing the feet of the Shechinah”? (Brachos 43b). “The Maharsha explains that such a person is acting as if all is his and there is no place or necessity for the Shechinah.” It would therefore seem, the rebbe asks, that standing tall is far from a good thing. On the contrary, it makes him disgusting in Hashem’s eyes (Sotah 5a; Megillah 29a). So what’s so good about being like a tree?

The rebbe answers with a quote from his father, the Imrei Emes (see Rosh Golas Ariel 1:138; Bais Yisroel, Bamidbar 5716). Chazal (Megillah ibid. and Bereishis Rabbah 99) tells us that Hashem didn’t want to give the Torah on one of the giant mountains because they represent arrogance. He therefore chose the diminutive Har Sinai. “But why not then,” asks the rebbe, “give the Torah on a flat piece of land, which is not raised at all?” His answer is that “it is no surprise or credit to something that has no elevation at all to be humble. It is only someone or something that has stature that can make a claim to being truly humble. This answers the apparent contradiction between man being praised for having a komah zekufah – upright bearing – and yet not crowding the Shechinah out of the world because he holds his head too high. Hashem doesn’t want a broken spirit; He wants nobility tempered by humility.”

We can modernize this resolution of how man should act and feel by borrowing from another great Chassidic master, Rabbi Dr. Avrohom Y. Twersky. His lifelong quest was to instill a sense of self-esteem into people. Yet, he taught by word and deed that this is no contradiction to a healthy dose of humility as well. Although the Pnei Menachem has much more to say, we can conclude our study of man and trees by noting that despite their majesty, trees sway in the wind, grant us their fruits to eat, and are happy to provide shade for the weary traveler. They serve mankind even as they tower above us. We, too, can learn from our greatest that we are each born to serve and lower ourselves, just as the fruit tree offers us all its precious products. Let’s take a moment this Tu B’Shevat to act more like the majestic yet humble trees in our lives.




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