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Other than God Himself, Judaism values nothing greater than life. Life is the ultimate gift from God. Without life, none of the riches of creation is available to us. Without life, the great adventure of our lives – our embrace of the Holy – is impossible.
Life is the environment in which we are allowed to participate in all things good. Our souls find animation in life. Without the gift of life, we cannot study Torah; we cannot love; we cannot be what God has commanded us to be.
The sacredness of life is not solely the province of man, however. That is, it is not man’s life alone that it special; it is life itself that is sacred. As such, Judaism teaches that everything that lives is touched with holiness. All is sacred. It communicates this lesson in a number of ways, none greater than the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees.
Unlike other calendars, the Jewish calendar contains four distinct “new years.” One, on the first of Nissan, is for the counting of the reigns of kings and the three pilgrimages. The first of Elul marks the new year for the tithing of animals. The first of Tishrei is the new year for the judgment of mankind, the tithing of grain and the counting of sh’mitah.
The fourth new year occurs on the 15th day of Shevat. Tu B’Shevat. The new year of the trees.
Certainly there is something significant in the number of new years. The Kabbalists teach that we live on four levels at the same time and that creation is continually taking place. Using the image of the tree, the roots, the first level is assiyah, doing. The trunk, yetzirah, inclination or tendency. Man has both the good and bad tendency and must constantly choose between the two. The branches, briyah, creation. And, finally, the lofty leaves and crown of the tree, atzilut, nobility.
Although the tree as a symbol is a powerful image, one that resonates throughout Jewish texts, it is not simply an image. The tree itself is to be honored. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught, “If you have a fruit tree on your hands and someone says to you, ‘Here is the Messiah,’ go and finish planting your fruit tree just the same. And afterward go out and welcome the Messiah.”
Consider what this says about life – and about trees. And why Jews have a new year just to celebrate trees.
The Torah teaches that on the third day of Creation God commanded the earth to “send forth vegetation and etz pri oseh pri lemino” – a fruit tree forming fruit for its species. When the Torah speaks of trees, it always does it in the singular. According to Rashi, the taste of the tree and the taste of its fruit were also to be one.
Tree is one. Singular. Unique. Exclusive.
Each tree is to be respected.
So too man.
When God created Adam, He created not just one man but all mankind. Even so, “Adam” can only be in the singular. It never appears in the plural. The Torah compares man to the tree in Parashat Shoftim. “A man is a tree in the field,” the Torah suggests. He may not be violently cut down for, like a tree, he is a source of blessing and a benefit for all of society. Man and the tree share significance in and of themselves but also in their ability to provide for others.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, just as they were also forbidden to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life Everlasting.
Perhaps more significant than the comparison of man and tree is that the Torah, God’s greatest gift to man, is also referred to as a tree. In the third chapter of Mishlei we read, “Eitz chaim hee lamachazikim bah.” Our Torah is “a tree of life to them who cling to her.”
Torah is the source of life, just like a tree. This is an allusion to that tree in the Garden.
God. Tree. Man. Each is one. Singular. Unique.
Adam. Tree. Torah. In each, the singularity represents its commonality.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimeon ben Yochai tells us, “You, the Jews, are referred to as Adam, not so the nations of the world.”
This declaration is, on first read, troubling. Was he suggesting that only Jews are singular and unique; that only Jews hold a special place in Creation?
My grandfather, the sage Rabbi Bezalel Zev Shafran, z”l, author of Responsa R’Baz, explained, “One of the most basic differences between the Jewish nation and the nations of the world is the value and worth Jews place upon the life of an individual human being. We recognize this clearly in the Torah’s exempting of the individual soldier from military duty; the individual soldier who was just married, the individual soldier who recently built a new home, the individual soldier who recently planted a vineyard – they are excused from military service in spite of the fact that the national and collective welfare is at stake. The individual Adam’s feelings, sensitivities and concerns supersede even the national concern.”
Therefore, Rabbi Shimeon ben Yochai said, atem kruin adam – only among Jews is the individual life’s concerns of such paramount importance; v’ein umot ha’olam kruin adam – no such value and principle exists amongst the nations of the world.
My uncle Rabbi Hanoch Heinich Shafran, z’l, footnoted the words and understanding of Shimeon ben Yochai and my grandfather when he noted that all other words for “man” – ish, enosh, gever – can appear in either the singular or the plural. But adam only appears in the singular. So it is that among all the nations of the world, any national can belong to any religion, hence a French Protestant or a Lebanese Muslim. Not so the Jewish nation and religion.
This is a painful truth to confront in a pluralistic world, but a difficult truth is a truth nonetheless. Indeed, the high value Jews place on life as compared to others was demonstrated clearly in the recent Gaza operation. While Hamas used civilians as human shields, the Israelis sought to avoid civilian casualties.
For them, their battle was a necessary duty that imbued with the recognition that even in war – perhaps particularly in war – life is valuable and sacred.
The military rabbis brought several Torah scrolls with them on the buses to Gaza with the troops. When the soldiers entered Gaza, they did so in two rows. The rabbis stood in the middle. As each soldier passed, a hand went out to kiss the Torah. This is how our soldiers entered Gaza, with a hand reaching out to touch the eitz chaim, the tree of life.
Judaism teaches that each life is sacred. Indeed, the Talmud teaches that “Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.”
Life is good. Not one man’s or another’s but every man’s. Life itself is good. We know this because it is the spirit of God, moving through every living thing, that provides the gift of life.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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