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What We Can Learn From Trees

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Tu B’Shevat is not just “another day.” It’s the Rosh Hashanah for trees, one of four roshei hashanah that occur in the Jewish calendar year (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1).

What’s so important about a New Year for Trees?

We live in a world filled with dark foreboding, ominous news and difficult tests. There is little obvious basis for hope, but we Jews always live with hope.

Where is the hope?

“Days are coming when Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill the face of the earth like fruit” (Yeshayah 27:6/Haftarah Parshas Shemos).

Why is Redemption compared to the growth of a tree?

Even the mightiest tree arises from a tiny seed, invisible not only because of its size but because it is buried underground. No one but Hashem knows it exists. It draws nutrients from the earth and sustenance from the rain that seeps downward. Perhaps the seed will not survive; it may be eaten by an animal or simply be too weak to flourish.

But some seeds do survive. They put out tiny, threadlike filaments, which in turn absorb more nutrients. All this takes place in darkness under the earth. And the tiny plant grows. When the air begins to warm in the world above, those filaments poke tiny tendrils above the soil. A tender shoot creeps up through the surface of the earth and absorbs the warmth of the sun. Now additional strength flows into the plant and the root branches out below, absorbing more moisture and nutrition, pushing deeper and becoming stronger.

Above and below, the plant grows, the tendrils becoming thicker and longer. As the days warm, the shoot grows more quickly.  Soon it becomes visible. As it reaches upward, it strengthens itself below, its roots thickening and lengthening to support the growth toward the sun.

What does this have to do with us?

“A righteous man will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall.  Planted in the house of Hashem, in the courtyards of our God they will flourish. They will be fruitful in old age, vigorous and fresh they will be – to declare that Hashem is just, my Rock in Whom there is no wrong” (Tehillim 92).

Plants are not all alike. Grass is different from a tree, as we see from the same Psalm: “When the wicked bloom like grass and all the doers of iniquity blossom, it is to destroy them till eternity….” If our roots are deep and our head is trying to reach toward Shamayim, we will be strong and stable, but if our roots are shallow like grass and our head is near the earth, we may be vulnerable on the Day of the Great Mowing.

Let’s try to learn from the life of a tree. We live in a loud, brash world. It is considered commendable to be aggressive, to prevail over others, to be “number one,” to push ahead, whether on the highway or in business, where the motto is, “kill the competition.” Look at football, for example, where the idea is to push your opponent down and out of your way.

This culture is totally opposed to the culture of Torah. We say every morning (Mishlei 3:19), “What are we? What is our life?…What is our strength? What is our insight?…Are not all heroes as nothing before You, the famous as if they never existed, the wise as if devoid of wisdom and the perceptive as if devoid of intelligence? For…the days of their lives are empty before You. The preeminence of man over beast is non-existent, for all is vain….”

We can learn this from the growth of a tree. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the expanse of the sky tells of His handiwork. Day following day…and night following night bespeaks wisdom. There is no speech and there are no words; their sound is unheard” (Tehillim 19).

Everything holy is hidden.

Hashem is supremely hidden. By definition, He is not perceptible. Those who try to emulate Hashem also try to emulate His invisibility. For this reason, a tzaddik is a hidden person, always trying to flee from recognition. He does not need recognition; his status and stature are from Hashem. “Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not covet honor” (Pirkei Avos 6:5).

The more kedushah, the more hidden.

“Indeed, He will hide me in His shelter on the day of evil; He will conceal me in the concealment of His tent” (Tehillim 27).

The Aron HaKodesh was hidden even when the Beis HaMikdosh was standing, let alone today, when no one knows where it is. Only one person, the kohen gadol, entered the Kodesh HaKadoshim on only one day of the year, Yom Kippur, and that person and that day were enwrapped in sanctity.

The very Place where Hashem allows His Presence to rest on earth is hidden.

Mashiach is hidden. He may be with us right now, but no one knows where. Look at the life of Dovid HaMelech, the progenitor of Mashiach. He was shunned, scorned; his life was turmoil and trouble, and (like Yosef in Mitzraim) even though he was in the midst of everyone, he was “invisible” until the moment of his revelation.

“Yishai [the father of David] presented his seven sons before Samuel, but Samuel said to Yishai, ‘God has not chosen these.’ Samuel said, ‘Are these all the boys?’ And he said, ‘The youngest one is still left; he is tending the sheep now.’ So Samuel said to Yishai, ‘Send and bring him, for we will not sit [to dine] until he arrives here.’ He sent and brought him. He was ruddy, with fair eyes and a pleasing appearance. God then said, ‘Arise and anoint him, for this is he’ ” (I Shmuel 16:10-12).

As Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald notes, “Just as David’s birth and childhood were filled with pain, so was his adult life. Although King David emerges as the greatest king of Israel, his life is one of constant pain and travail. He is persecuted by King Saul, and afflicted with great and constant turmoil in his household; conflict and violence abound among his adult children. The Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni teaches that Torah is acquired only through affliction and suffering.  Asks [Rabbi Eliahu Kitov in The Book of Our Heritage], ‘Why do we recall David through…reading…the story of Ruth on Shavuos? To teach that a person can become a tool for the purpose of Heaven on this earth only through affliction and suffering.’ ”

More from The Book of Our Heritage:

“All that we have seen regarding David…is a linked chain of events that the Creator wondrously formed to bring the light of Moshiach to the world. In His profound wisdom, He saw fit to veil this light within a curtain of darkness that will only part when the time arrives for it to be revealed. The strength of the revealed light will be directly proportionate to the depth in which it was concealed. “Why was it necessary to conceal this light so deeply? It is the Divine will that when the light of Messiah appears, all darkness will be dispelled and all that had previously been hidden in the darkness will be revealed. Darkness will no longer be dark and the night shall be as light as day…” God is hidden and His servants are hidden.

“Rabbi Isaac…said, ‘Blessing is only possible in things hidden from sight…in things not under the direct control of the eye…. Blessing is not to be found in anything that has been already weighed or measured or numbered, but only in a thing hidden from sight” (Tractate Taanis 8b).

The entire story of Dovid HaMelech and Mashiach is reflected in the growth of a tree. The Mishnah says, “From where [did we come]? A putrid drop. To where are [we] going? A place of dust, worms and maggots…” (Pirkei Avos 3:1). Even the mightiest tree arose from an invisible seed, whose existence and location are known only to God. That seed lives in a place of darkness, worms and maggots, like the place from which the seed of Dovid HaMelech arose, the Land of Moab, the darkest and most corrupt culture in the world. Into this dark world comes water dripping from Above. “He waters the mountains from His upper chambers, from the fruit of Your works the earth is sated. He causes vegetation to sprout…the trees of Hashem are sated, the cedars of Lebanon He has planted” (Tehillim 104).

Man is planted in this world, a place of darkness filled with hidden terrors. He is alone.  “Does anyone know I am here?” he cries out. And yes, there is a hint of an answer. Drops of life-giving water come to him, to sustain him, to assure him that there is an answer from above. Man reaches upward to God as the tree reaches toward Heaven. “Ana Hashem hoshia na…please God, save [me] now… ana Hashem hatzlicha na…Please God, bring success now”  (Tehillim 118). And then there is a day of Revelation and greatness, perhaps like the day that Am Yisrael left Mitzraim, when the shoot first penetrates upward through the dark soil and reaches daylight.  “I see the light! Perhaps there is more than darkness to this world!” And mankind begins to believe that there is a G-d.

So man’s life begins to change. Now he knows he must reach upward toward the Heavens. He wants to come closer to God. He is going against gravity, so it is hard work, but he revels in it because he knows there is now a point to his toil on this earth “beneath the sun.” And the tree pushes upward ever higher.

But in order to reach great heights, the roots must become ever stronger and deeper. That means a man must root himself securely, establishing habits of Torah study, clean living and honorable relationships among his peers. His middos and ma’asim tovim must be beyond reproach and he must be beloved by his fellow man for integrity and an “ayin tovah,” a good eye that radiates friendship and chesed. As his roots become stronger, he has the foundation to grow ever taller and reach up to Heaven for sustenance from Above. He is coming ever closer to his Creator.

In our davening for Mashiach we say: “May You cause the offspring of David, Your servant, speedily to flower, and his pride may You exalt through Your salvation…. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who causes the pride of salvation to flourish.”

Isn’t this interesting language?

We are asking for Mashiach to “flower.”

It sounds as though Chazal, when they established the berachah for Mashiach, envisioned the growth of a tree, but they took it a step further than roots and branches. They envisioned the fruit. Let’s return to Gan Eden and remember that there, in the beginning of time, we subsisted on the fruit of the tree.

As man stands with his feet rooted in this world and his head in the Shamayim, he connects heaven and earth like the ladder of our father Yaakov. And there is a result from this: he produces fruit that sustains mankind and allows us to live. Fruit from a tree is a complete blessing, different from all other food, and perhaps that is why it was the food in Gan Eden.

When you eat the fruit of a tree, nothing is killed and nothing is lost. The tree remains standing and healthy; it just gives of itself to sustain you and you take nothing away from it, like a flame that is not diminished when you light another candle. This is different from all other food. Fruits of the ground – “borei pri ha’adamah” – require that the plant be uprooted. For example, a potato plant or a beet or a carrot is entirely uprooted when you harvest it; the plant is finished. This is even clearer in the case of meat, which of course requires that the animal be slaughtered before it sustains mankind.

But not so “borei pri ha’etz,” the fruit of the tree. This is perfect food, which sustains us while continuing to flourish and grow. And this is the , whose feet are planted on the ground and whose head is in Shamayim. He sustains the world without taking anything away from himself.  In fact, by sustaining the world he strengthens himself and continues to grow.

The tree is a model for a tzaddik. On Tu B’Shevat, winter is ending; life is beginning to flow once again as the earth begins to feel the warmth of the sun. The sap in the trees begins to flow, the buds appear, and soon spring blossoms will burst open. In the summer, beautiful fruits will appear to sustain mankind.

Soon, “a staff will emerge from the stump of Yishai and a shoot will sprout from his roots. The spirit of Hashem will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of Hashem” (Yeshayah 11:1).
Roy Neuberger’s latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim), is available in English, Hebrew and Spanish, with French and Russian editions in preparation. Roy is also the author of “From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Russian) and “Worldstorm.”    Roy and his wife speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. He can be contacted at roy@tosinai.com or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com.

About the Author: Roy Neuberger's latest book, "2020 Vision" (Feldheim), is available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Russian with a Georgian edition in preparation. An e-edition is available at www.feldheim.com. Roy is also the author of "From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul" (available in English, Hebrew and Russian, Georgian edition in preparation) and "Worldstorm." Roy and his wife speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. He can be contacted at roy@tosinai.com or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com. Roy and his wife speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. He can be contacted at roy@tosinai.com or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com.


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