Man – The Tree of the Field

The New Year for Trees

The Tikunei Zohar teaches:

You created heaven and earth, trees and grasses and human beings, so that the higher worlds could be known through them…and so the higher worlds could be known through the lower worlds. (Tikunei Zohar, Introduction, “Patah Eliyahu,” 17a.)

The Holy One, blessed be He, created all the various elements of this world so that by contemplating them we could recognize the higher worlds, for all the lower worlds, to the very last detail, are a descent and downward gradation from the higher ones. The entire universe is designed like a map, but its meaning remains concealed; God did not clearly explain how and what we may learn from each thing. We therefore must study and investigate on our own what it is that the creations of this world teach us.

Many verses indicate that there is a connection between the tree and man, often comparing them to one another: “For the [existence of] man is the tree of the field;” (Deuteronomy 20:19; see Sifrei and Ibn Ezra loc. cit.) “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water;” (Psalms 1:3) “He will be like a lone tree in the desert.” (Jeremiah 17:6).  It appears, then, that much can be learned about man, his soul, and his manner of worship by observing trees and their growth. Tu BiShevat, the New Year for the trees, when we focus on our bond with the Land of Israel and our love for it and its plant life, is an opportunity to focus on learning from the trees.

Watch this video of Rabbi Steinsaltz telling the story of a tree he planted.

“Like a tree planted”

One element of comparison between trees and man relates to the tree’s connection to the earth. Just as the tree grows in the earth and is like one of its creations, man similarly has “soil” from which he draws sustenance. And just as a tree that is detached from the earth will surely die, so, too, man – the individual as well as the community – cannot survive in detachment, as a self-contained creature.

One of the basic sources of modern man’s suffering is his lack of social belonging. The personal loneliness that many feel and the general sense of alienation that people experience nowadays are expressions of the fact that man has ceased to be “planted in the earth.”

Today, most social affiliation is based on practical need, not meaningful values. People join groups to protect their common interests, but this is almost like professional affiliation; they do not feel that this is their home, that there is a place in which they are planted. The social unit comes together as a contingency to build mutual defensive and offensive mechanisms, but no more than that. Many people are like nomads who incidentally arrive at a certain place, but there is no meaningful tie that binds them to it. They feel no special relationship with their place, and are therefore easily uprooted. In a certain sense, modern people are like plastic decorative plants, which are lifeless and therefore can “flower” without any need of the earth.

This reality results from the aspiration to the ideal of personal freedom; the individual wishes to detach himself from any social bond and endeavors to turn himself into the essence and foundation of all existence. The insistence on the right to be an independent individualist allows one to adapt everywhere equally, because in any case one does not truly belong anywhere.

Verses in Psalms describe the tzaddik as a tree planted in excellent soil, a comely tree that bears good fruit: “The righteous bloom like a date-palm, they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the House of God, they flourish in the courts of our Lord;” (Psalms 92:13) “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water.” (Ibid. 1:3)  A person who is connected to a place and has a positive relationship and a commitment to his surroundings has a chance to develop, blossom, and be fruitful.

By contrast, the wicked person is cursed that he will be “like tumbleweed, like straw before the wind.” (Ibid. 83:14)  He will be like a dry shrub that is uprooted and driven by the wind from place to place. One whose life is not built upon a lasting root feels that relationships and commitments shackle, imprison, and suffocate him. Such a person chooses to live like a hewn tree – a life that draws no nourishment from any source, does not develop in any direction, and cannot truly be termed life at all.

The same phenomenon is discernible on a larger historical plane as well, in particular in the great rebellions within Jewish society during the last few generations. Part of the social essence of the Jewish People was always the sense that a Jew is planted in ground from which he draws sustenance and on which he tries to build. Even when a process of renewal unfolds, there is never transformation into a completely new creature; a part of the past is always preserved. An analogy to this may be drawn from the rings on a tree trunk, which attest that despite all the renewal and growth of new branches and leaves, the tree has not replaced its essential self of old, but has only added new layers to it.

During the last few generations, the Jewish People has undergone a revolution of detachment based on the conception that the past is repulsive and shameful. For ideological and practical reasons, people severed all connection with their past; as a result, their children had no ability to get to know their larger family and identify with their roots. Some intentionally cut off their connection with the past, while others were subjected to this process without their knowledge, at times even under duress or by deceit.

Thus was created a disengaged and rootless reality, and this is the reason many today have a sense of displacement from their past. This is a major reason for the inability of many people to identify with their own Judaism.

In order to fill the void created as a result of this great detachment, one must make a personal effort to find soil from which to draw sustenance – a kind of home and homeland. There is no choice but to search for, or at least reconstruct, a place and an atmosphere from which one can draw nourishment and thereby grow.

Unto Old Age

Another aspect of analogy between man and tree lies in the verse, “The days of My people shall be [as long] as the days of a tree.” (Isaiah 65:22)

A healthy, un-grafted tree may live for more than two thousand years. In fact, there are trees known to be four thousand years old! It is actually not clear what causes the death of a tree at all; as long as the tree’s life is not ended by an accident or some other external event, it has the potential to continue living for a great many years.

Not only can a tree reach an extremely old age, but it can even bear fruit at such an age. Even very old trees continue to be fruitful, and the quality and quantity of their fruit does not seem to be impaired by their age.

The normal course of a human being’s life, on the other hand, is slightly different.

A person’s development starts with a process of growth, but even before he reaches full maturity, a process of aging and deterioration sets in. Unlike trees, we do not grow all our lives. At a relatively early stage, a decline begins, and the period of maturity and fertility is usually quite limited.

The “days of My people” – and no other nation – are compared to the days of the ever-growing tree, which continues to bear fruit even after reaching the age of four thousand years. Other nations grow, peak, decline, and die, but the days of the Jewish People are days of continual growth.

This is true for the Jewish People, and it is true for the individual. The individual Jew never “retires,” neither as a human being nor as a Jew. As long as he lives, he should continue to blossom, grow, develop, and, above all, bear fruit. A person who is healthy and not beset with special impairments is expected to continue being fruitful until the Angel of Death cuts him down; this is the essence of “the days of a tree.”

Every person has a period of growth and development, followed by a period in which he is fruitful – provided we are dealing with a living tree and not a block of wood. In this regard, one must remember that the first fruits of every tree are forbidden as “orla” (see Leviticus 19:23).  Similarly, the first things that a person accomplishes at a young age may be orla;they have not developed to the degree necessary. As he continues to grow, however, there comes a time when his fruits have properly ripened.

This essay is an excerpt from Change and Renewal: The Essence of the Jewish Holidays, Festivals and Days of Remembrance, by Rabbi Steinsaltz.