Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah would say, “He whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what can he be compared? To a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few, so that any wind can come and uproot it and turn it over on its face. But he whose deeds exceed his wisdom, to what can he be compared? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many, so that even if all the winds of the worlds beset him, they cannot move him from his place…” (Avot 3:22)
In many ways, trees are the essential metaphor of Jewish existence. In our prayer, we refer to Torah, our greatest gift, as Eitz Chaim – a Tree of Life. King David compares the righteous to a tree: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever he does prospers.”
The image of the tree, powerful, strong and sustaining is a comforting one. Likewise, a tree – with its potential to be so life-enriching – can be vulnerable and too easily toppled if its branches exceed its roots.
Beautiful leaves and reaching limbs without a strong foundation will simply cause the tree to fall, just as vanity rather than wisdom can bring down a man, a country, a people.
Even Dr. Seuss, no scholarly rabbi, deeply understood the importance of trees. He knew that without them, the landscape would be less joyful, the paths we walk bleaker, and, ultimately, the lives we lead would be unsustainable.
Trees can survive without us, but we cannot survive without trees. Our obligation to trees is our obligation to ourselves and all of creation. Our civilization either ensures trees grow and thrive or our greed guarantees that they will die.
And, as goes the trees, so goes man.
Could there be a world without trees? A world without the fruits of trees? No apples, no peaches, no oranges? No shade from the hot, summer sun? No cleansing of the air through the process of photosynthesis?
Keeping trees healthy is, for us, both a selfish and selfless act. The great gaon, Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman, the last dayan in Vilna, tended a small garden outside his office at the Netzach Yisrael Yeshiva in Jerusalem each and every day. Even though his students were in the Beit Midrash studying, Rav Gustman, the rosh yeshiva, would be outside tending his garden. While his students presumed his behavior was a demonstration of chibat ha-aretz, his love for Eretz Yisrael, it was actually an act of hakarat hatov. Years before, prior to the war, his rebbe, the Gadol HaDor, Rav Chaim Ozer, had shown him which vegetation was edible and which was not – a lesson that had saved his life when the Nazis invaded Vilna and he escaped into the forest!
The world G-d created serves us, but only when we serve it.
Dr. Seuss understood this when he created his fanciful character, the Lorax, who proclaimed boldly, “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.” A children’s character stood up for the trees. How much more so should we Jews!
As important as trees are to our physical existence, they are equally important to our spiritual existence for they allow us to understand ourselves deeply. Indeed, in parashat Shoftim, the Torah states, “Man is a tree of the field.”
Trees are – and represent – such a central reality in the world that throughout the Torah “trees” are referred to in the singular, etz. Just as the tree is singular, so too the man.
Trees and man. Both, sources of blessing and potential benefit to society; both, created singular; both, too often violently cut down. G-d who created the singular, ideal tree, likewise created the singular and ideal Adam. G-d created Adam in His image; He created Adam and then Chava. Singular. Ideal. G-d placed them in the ideal place, Gan Eden.
One man. One woman. Once place.
G-d is One. Adam is one. Torah is one. Of these, Adam and Torah are likened to the tree. Man/Adam is like “the tree of the field.” The Torah is “a tree of life.”
Tree. Adam. Torah. Each defined by brilliant singularity. Add to this list the Jew. In the Talmud, Rav Shimon bar Yochai says, “You, the Jews, are referred to as Adam, not so the nations of the world.”
Some have taken offense, suggesting that the distinction Rav Shimeon bar Yochai notes denigrates the nations of the world. But the distinction he makes is apt. As my grandfather HaGaon Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, explains in his Sh’elot U’tshuvot R’baz (3,37), “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, Rav Shimeon bar 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, Rav Chanoch Heinich Shafran, offered a footnote to my grandfather’s insight when he observed that all Hebrew words denoting man – ish, enosh, gever – are used both in the singular and plural forms, but “Adam” can only be rendered in the singular. For among all nations and religions of the world, a national of any country can belong to any religion – a French Protestant or a Lebanese Moslem – with the exception of the Jewish nation and religion. The Jewish nation and the Jewish religion are one and the same. Therefore, atem kruin adam – you Jews are Adam – there is no plural for you.
The Jew is singular.
Adam. The Jew. Etz.
We can draw several lessons from our affinity to the tree. Certainly, we gain insights into the “human tree,” as explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The tree is made up of roots, which anchor it to the ground and provide it with nourishment; the trunk, branches and leaves, which make up its body; and the fruit, which contains the seeds by which the tree reproduces.
Like the tree, Adam’s spiritual life is made up of roots, a body and fruit. The Rebbe taught that our roots represent faith, our source of nurture and perseverance. The trunk, branches and leaves are the body of our spiritual lives – our intellectual, emotional and practical achievements. The fruit is our power of spiritual continuance – our ability to plant a seed in a fellow human being and see it bear fruit.
Perhaps the comparison of Adam to the tree is most apt when we see the tree not just as an analogy to the individual himself but as an analogy to the individual and his family.After all, when we think of our families through the generations, what do we call it?Our family tree. Each of us, in our roots and trunk, form the foundation for the many limbs and fruits that extend outward.As Rashi noted, the taste of the tree and the taste of its fruit were to be one.Our families, our children, are recognizable as ours.
But the tree only appears uniform at first glance and from a distance. As we approach the tree, we see that its fruit, while clearly related, have distinct properties – different sizes and hues, and slightly different tastes and sweetness. So too, the tree’s leaves. A cursory glance has each leaf like every other. But on closer examination, we see that each leaf is as distinguishable from the other as one snowflake from another. Related, yes. Familial, absolutely. But unique and special each.
Perhaps in this is the greatest lesson of the tree – not only is the tree singular but its fruit and limbs are singular and unique as well. In the same way, each child is singular and unique and must be respected and loved as such. For no more would we want every fruit to conform to the other, to be exactly the same size and have exactly the same shape than to have every child be the same.
The singularity of each tree is to be celebrated.
So too, the singularity of each of G-d’s children, and each one of our own!