Man and (Not “In”) the Tree

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13 Feb 2014
Tu B'Shevat

In Bereshit

The Chumash does not explicitly address the Darwinian conception of the relationship between Man and the Trees, in terms of an ancient ancestor of Man living in them. However, the Book of Bereshit and the rest of the Five Books do contain material suggesting a profound relationship between the Human Being and the Trees.

In the first Chapter of Genesis, we find, “And Hashem caused to sprout from the ground every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food; also the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. … Hashem took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it. And Hashem commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree in the Garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”

At this point, we will not discuss the nature of the Tree of Knowledge, nor of the Prohibition against eating from it (mainly because we haven’t a clue as to what they mean (not really)), but a number of things seem clear from the verses cited:

The purpose of Original Man in the Garden was “to work it and to guard it,” meaning to exercise his uniquely human capabilities; in particular, his intelligence, to develop Nature; but to do so in a way that would not harm it. Thus, G-d, the Creator of Nature, was the First Environmentalist.

Original Man (and Original Woman, who will soon appear on the scene), were apparently vegetarians, for they were permitted to eat only from the Trees of the Garden (although later in Bereshit, after the Great Flood, Noach (Captain of the Ark) and his family are explicitly permitted by G-d to eat meat (Ber. 9:3); G-d is saying, as it were, “Let the humans stop killing themselves – then we’ll worry about their not killing animals!”).

In Devarim

In the Book of Devarim (20:19-20), the Torah states some of the rules for a military campaign. “When you besiege a city for many days, to wage war against it, to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an ax against them, for from them you will eat, and you should (therefore) not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man that it should be a victim of your siege? Only the tree of which you know that it is not a fruit tree, it you may destroy and cut down, and use it to build a bulwark against the city that makes war with you, until it is conquered.”

There are actually two ways of understanding the verse bolded above. Our translation follows the interpretation of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), who understands the verse to be a question, so as to say: “The fruit tree is not your enemy; it is neutral, even a friendly, food-producing part of nature, which stands apart from man and his conflicts. Therefore, it should not be destroyed!”

According to Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, the flow of the verse is that since human beings need fruit for food, the survival of people is synonymous with the survival of their food supply. In other words, using the idea of “you are what you eat,” the verse should be translated as “for a man is the tree of the field;” that is, he depends on the tree for survival.

Maharal comments that this comparison of people to trees has far-reaching significance. Just as trees must grow branches, twigs, flowers and fruit to fulfill their purpose, so is Man put on earth to be productive and labor to produce moral, intellectual and spiritual truth. This is why the Sages refer to the reward for good deeds as “fruit,” for they are the true human growth.

In the Rain Forest

Another aspect of the interdependence of human beings and trees has been pointed out in recent decades; namely, that rain forests produce a major component of the world’s Oxygen, an absolutely essential, life-giving resource for Man and all (certainly most (?)) air-breathing creatures. Just one of many examples which could be cited to emphasize the requirement upon human beings to guard and protect our natural environment, but a particularly powerful one; for in this case, if we do not, we will slowly, but surely, suffocate ourselves.

In “Secular” Poetry

The poet Joyce Kilmer wrote the following poem about the beauty of trees:

“I think that I shall never see,
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest*
Against the earth’s sweet, flowing breast;
A tree that looks at G-d all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only G-d can make a tree.

(* – the author’s poetically licensed spelling)

The poet thus sees in the earth the feminine element in the Creation, whereby “Mother Earth” provides nurturing for all her trees.

In the Kabbalah

Interestingly, the Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism, also sees in the fruitful earth the feminine element, vis-a-vis the rain-and-moisture-providing heavens, which represent the masculine element in Creation.

In Tehilim (Psalms)

In Tehilim (1,3) we find a metaphor for one who has not wasted his time, but has lived a productive life, engaged in the study of Torah and performance of good deeds:

“He shall be like a tree deeply rooted,
Alongside brooks of water,
That yields its fruit in its season,
And whose leaves never wither;
And everything that he does,
Meets with success.”

In Tehilim 92 (13-16), we find a model for the righteous person, expressed again through the medium of trees:

“A righteous person will flourish like a date palm,
Like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall,
Planted in the house of Hashem,
In the courtyards of our G-d they will flourish;
They will still be fruitful in old age,
Vigorous and fresh they will be –
To declare that Hashem is just,
My Rock, in Whom there is no wrong.”

And in Tehilim 96 (11-13), we look forward to the time when all of humanity together with all of nature will celebrate the coming of Hashem to judge the world in righteousness:

“The heavens will exult and the earth rejoice,
The sea and all its contents will thunder,
The field of the L-rd and all within will shout for joy;
Then all the trees of the forest will sing,
Before Hashem because He is coming,
He is coming to judge the world,
He will judge the world with righteousness,
And the nations with faithfulness.”