June 9, 2024
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Tu B’Shevat, the Rosh Hashanah of the trees, informs us of the deep connection between nature and spirituality.

Mankind intuited that trees are essential to our existence, even prior to our perception of rain cycles, photosynthesis and the myriad of functions trees serve for humanity. The allure of trees has perpetually captivated our senses through poems, paintings and myths. Trees have held central positions in theologies, from the notorious Asherah to the Druid veneration of sacred trees. The Torah marks the third day of creation with the advent of oceans and trees adding balance, life and stability to existence. On the sixth day, Adam’s consumption of the fruit of the Etz ha’Da’at, (Tree of Knowledge, Sanhedrin 38b) disqualified him from accessing the eternal life offered by the Etz Ha’Chaim (Tree of Life), and brought on instability, death and ultimately man’s exile from the Garden. Today, the Garden is inaccessible and the Temple destroyed; our only sanctuary is the Shabbat (me’ein olam ha’ba) and the only place we can take refuge is the Torah. The climax of tefillah on Shabbat is the kriah (Torah reading). After the kriah we return the Torah to the ark and sing the melodic “Etz Chaim” song—A tree of life to those who hold fast to it, and all who cling to it, find happiness. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. (Proverbs 3:17-18)

What is our aim in comparing the Torah to a tree of life, especially one reminiscent of man’s expulsion from the Garden? Would it not be better to sidestep man’s downfall and choose a symbol that is celestial? The sun and stars are otherworldly, they burn and glow with a seraphic beauty and many believe the constellations act as prophetic signs of Divine providence. Could there be any greater aspiration than to crave attainment of a cosmic radiance, resplendent with prophetic insights? Only our lives are here on planet earth—“ha’aretz natan lifnei adam”—and the rabbis tell us, lo b’Shamayim he (not in the Heavens, 30:12) the supernal loftiness of the celestial world is not within our grasp. Moreover, it’s in plain sight, “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may obey it” (Deuteronomy, 30:13). Therefore, the Torah has an abundance of mitzvot tied to the earth: orlah, sheva minim, pe’ah, leket, shichicha, shmittah, yovel, arbah minim and the omer. The Me’Am Loez prioritizes the significance of trees: “Man’s life is dependent on trees; trees are so important for the existence of the world that the sages established a special blessing for those who go out in Nisan and see blossoming fruit-producing trees.” Perhaps that is why it is appropriate for a tree to be emblematic of our relationship with Torah, because trees have greater proximity to our terrestrial lives. They are abundantly accessible, available in all our habitats and grow at our pace. Torah is a mesorah, a chain of tradition from Moshe that culturally connects us to our ancestors. We are centered by our cultural upbringing;

In our quest for Torah knowledge, we forgo fireworks, we seek stability, deep steady connection, consistent growth: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” (Psalms 1:3). To continuously advance in our spiritual lives, we grasp on to the Torah as we would the Tree of Life. The Torah is our tool to transform the Tree of Knowledge—which was the catalyst that squashed our innocence, skewed our perspective and made us vulnerable to our desires—and elevate it. Ashreichem amcha Yisrael, who received the gift of Torah at Har Sinai; it is the only antidote to overcome ourselves, transcend the fear of death, gain eternal life and get us back to the Garden. Let us remember how fortunate we are the next time we find ourselves taking leave of the Torah as it is returned to the aron amid the tune of “Etz Chaim He.”

By Yisroel Settenbrino

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