After 20 years of living in Atlanta, it is not a stretch to consider the tree and our beautiful, lush, green surroundings as a metaphor for life.
This week, however, it is a Jewish lens through which I marvel at nature and its relation to humanity (I am not referring to the environmental relationship, although that is another lens through which I view my place on G-d’s green Earth). This Shabbat is the 15th of Shevat, celebrated as Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees.
For the actual textual reference in the Torah — “that man (or woman) is a tree of the field” — it does not take a Torah scholar to notice the similarities between nature and our human experience.
Some of the lessons we can take from these similarities are profoundly simple, and some are exquisitely deep.
Sunlight, water and weeding are all allegorical to the nurture required to grow a tiny human into an upstanding adult and contributing member of society. A sapling, like a child, requires the right amount of care and protection, but with too much shade (overprotection), sun (discipline) or water (material indulgences), the sapling has a harder time taking root.
It is also important to note how resilient a sapling is. Although there is an ideal environment that makes its growth predictable and successful, it can adapt and pull through in less-than-ideal situations.
This is probably most helpful to remember for our own lives, as we wonder about the best possible environment and the right amount of sun, shade and water needed for our own families to blossom. Ultimately, we do our best, which is not a cop-out or a defeatist position, but an acceptance of reality.
With all our best intentions, life has a way of sending droughts and downpours and rough elements. So the knowledge that our little people are resilient at the end of it all is very empowering. It is not the mindset of the cynic; it is the mindset of the visionary.
Since we are discussing nature, let us dig even deeper. Besides the obvious, what else is practical about this text from the Torah?
The Talmud asks the question of the above Torah statement, “Is man a tree?” The given answer is yes, literally.
We all know we are not literal trees blowing in the wind, so what this must mean to say is that our bond with nature is pretty tight, and being similar to a tree is paramount.
Why a tree? A tree does not move around or speak. Perhaps being compared to an animal would be more appropriate. Especially because an animal walks around and has a brain.
According to ancient Jewish mystics, there are four categories of life:
- Domem — inanimate objects, like rocks or shells.
- Tzomeach — growth, like vegetation.
- Chai — living, like animals, birds and fish.
- Midaber — literally one who speaks, meaning humans.
Our intellect is likened to the chai, an animal. While our middot, aka character traits, are likened to the tzomeach, a tree. So, indeed, we are a bit of animal and a bit of tree.
So why are we called a tree, and not an animal, of the field? It must be that one’s character is more essential to the human than even brains; therefore, it gets that “man tree” verse.
What is it about our tree that is so intrinsic, and why is it important enough to mention in the Torah?
An animal moves around. It can adapt, and it does not stay connected to its source in a visible way. The same can be said about our intellect; although it may reside in the brain, in practice it is movable.
We can understand something one way and apply it in another way. We can comprehend two opposing sides of an argument. We can adapt our thinking to different situations. We can be flexible of mind. We can have opinions far removed from the ones we were raised with. And we often think of this as our most profound human ability.
But that is not where the Torah wishes to extol the person.
We are called the tree of the field — this is specific.
The tree’s most notable qualities are growth and immobility. Trees (and all vegetation) are the only growing organisms that stay connected visually and physically to their source. This is one of the elements that differentiate between chai and tzomeach.
What this verse is telling us is that our character traits show us for who we really are: rooted, like a tree.
No matter what our thoughts are, it is how we behave that is representative of our essence. I can be supremely annoyed or believe someone is mistaken in their ideologies. I can have a conflicting opinion. But how I treat another is what makes me who I am as a person.
Sometimes people who are more educated begin to perceive themselves as better. But, in fact, they are not. As Jon Batiste said, “You are never too important to be nice to people.”
So in this small yet profound way, we are meant to emulate and resemble a tree. Our character and potential for good are part of us from birth and are rooted deep within. Our middot are the seeds of our essence, unmoving and steady, but also meant to be growing upward — grand and majestic like an oak or a redwood.
This message of Tu B’Shevat is that just as a tree grows and takes shape firmly in one place, we are acknowledged for our roots, our inborn set of character traits. And like a tree planted firm yet with potential to grow magnificently tall and wide, we are given entire lifetimes to develop ourselves into impressive and dignified human beings.