The Torah of Trees: Tu Bishvat and Parashat Yitro

Delivered at Temple Sinai over dinner with congregants in 2015

Good evening! It is a real honor and pleasure to be here today, to get to know your community, and to have the chance to offer some words of Torah.  Thank you.

I'd like to begin with one of my favorite prayers:

Reb Nachman of Bratslav used to pray: רבונו של עולם Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass, among all growing things.. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field — all grasses, trees, and plants — awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer ...

Tu Bishvat,  The 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, was yesterday. Known as the New Year for the Trees, or the Jewish Arbor Day, we first learn about the holiday in the first mishna of tractate Rosh Hashana, in which it is a cut-off date for the Biblical tithing season. But the Kabbalists of 16th century Sfat imbued the day with new meaning. Reading the mishna closely, they noticed that the Hebrew was not  רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לָאִילָנות, The new year of the trees, but רֹאשׁ ,הַשָּׁנָה לָאִילָן the new year of the Tree, singular and (if Hebrew had capitals) capitalized. In this mystical interpretation, the holiday became not only the birthday of trees, but the birthday of the Cosmic Tree of Life. Tu Bishvat became a day for blessings, actions, and prayers that the mystics believed would aid in the process of renewing the flow of life force itself in the world. 

    The Jewish calendar has a beautiful and not often spoken about feature, which is that the holiday of Tu Bishvat often falls on the week of Parashat Yitro, the Torah portion in which Moses and the Israelites receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai. (I'm really enjoying getting to speak on this parasha in a community named Temple Sinai). And of course, the Torah, is our people's Tree of Life, עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה,  she is a tree of life to those who hold fast to her. So we're in a moment in our calendar where the giving of Torah coincides, perhaps not accidentally, with the birthday of the cosmic Tree of Life.

    The earliest Western scientists called themselves natural philosophers. They understood divine revelation to consist of two books – the Bible, and Nature. In this worldview, religion and the natural sciences were not at odds with one another; rather, a deep look at the natural world was what brought us closer to God, the holy force behind it all. We find a beautiful articulation of this idea in a prayer from  Pri Etz Hadar, a 17th century Kabbalistic treatise on the TuBishvat Seder: "God...You caused trees and grass to grow from the earth, according to the structure and character of [the forms] above, so that human beings might gain wisdom and understanding through them, and thus grasp the hidden [forms]." In other words, what we observe in nature, in the forms and structures of trees and plants, can teach us deeper spiritual lessons, Torah you might say. So I want to linger with this familiar and beloved metaphor of Torah as a Tree of Life and flip around the metaphor to ask: What is the Torah of Trees?  What Torah, what life wisdom, do the trees have to teach us?

    Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, may his memory be a blessing, was the founder of Jewish Renewal (and, full disclosure, my fiancé's father, though his influence on my Judaism far predated me and my fiancé meeting).  Reb Zalman spoke of us human beings as theotropic, by which he meant that our nature is to grow toward God, in the way that a tree grows toward the sun.  A moment of aside here: In case the word God turns you off, please feel free to substitute another word or image that works better for you, something that stands in for what you hold most dear and is somehow bigger than you. Perhaps a transcendent greatness, or an immanent Presence who knows and loves you. Or perhaps simply the values that you enshrine as guiding aspirations: trust, compassion, gratitude, love, meaning, to name a few. To say we are theotropic beings is to say we grow toward meaning, toward some kind of goodness, toward our best life.  

    How do we do it? What can we learn about being theotropic from the heliotropic trees? Well, I've often heard of the wisdom of trees being that they can bend in the wind without breaking. But I didn't understand the profundity of this until coming across an article recently that described a project called Biosphere 2. Biosphere 2 was a place where scientists could study specific natural processes, and try out agricultural experiments in a controlled environment without extra inputs from the outside world. But the scientists made a surprising and totally accidental discovery. I quote here from the article "The trees inside Biosphere 2 grew rapidly, more rapidly than they did outside of the dome, but they also fell over before reaching maturation. After looking at the root systems and outer layers of bark, the scientists came to realize that a lack of wind in Biosphere 2 caused a deficiency of stress wood. Stress wood helps a tree position itself for optimal sun absorption and it also helps trees grow more solidly. Without stress wood, a tree can grow quickly, but it cannot support itself fully. It cannot withstand normal wear and tear, and survive. In other words, the trees needed some stress in order to thrive in the long run."

We are living in a world of constant stimulation, and most of us now have the ability to reach for the comfort of distraction in any moment. In a way, this is like putting ourselves inside a dome, insulated from the winds of bothersome thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. Our phones, email, TV shows on demand, even the voices of NPR or a good friend in the car can all serve us in moments, but there are other moments where we would do well to breathe and sit with our own thoughts and feelings, to let the wind in, so to speak, to feel our resistance, and give ourselves the space to come to new insights. This Torah of Trees teaches us that there is a productive discomfort, that vitality is found in the moment we choose not to shut out our (often uncomfortable) inner lives. Similarly, our ability to stay present and listen to a partner, parent, child, the precise people who trigger us the most... this is standing in the wind. When we really attend to them, giving them awareness and even gratitude, these are the moments not just of gritting our teeth and dealing with it, but of generative discomfort. Like trees bracing against the wind that can better grow toward the sun, we can better grow toward our best selves, toward God.  

    Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, writes in her poem Flare, "Rise up from the stump of sorrow, and be green also, like the diligent leaves," The diligent leaves. I am amazed by nature's general refusal to ever let shame or doubt get in the way of trying again and again to grow in the face of challenge – of wind, storm, fire, disease. In college I taught a summer camp for kids at an Audubon Society camp, and learned a wonderful bit of Torah (though it wasn't called that) from the natural history New England: The blight that wiped out the forests of American Chestnuts in the first half of the 20th century left seeds in the ground, and if you look for the seraded almond shaped leaves in our woods today, you can see bouquets of branches growing out of stumps. For decades these trees have been trying over and over to reach maturity despite over and over again being stopped by the fungus. Their hope and resilience are seemingly tireless. This is the אילן at work, the great Tree, what Dylan Thomas' called so eloquently "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower." Resilience.

    And indeed, perhaps one of the most important parts of the Torah of the Tree is also the simplest. Trees generate conditions suitable to life. They create room for life in every part of them – among their roots in the soil, on their trunks, in their branches, in their shade. Even in their death, snags (dead standing trees) provides vital habitat for animals and microorganisms. From an ecological, inter-species perspective, trees are phenomenally generous beings.  And yet they also know how to go after what they need. As a child, I remember being moved to tears by the power of roots to break through the concrete sidewalks on my street. I heard recently about a woman who called a plumber because her pipes were clogged in February. The plumber explained to her that a tree in her yard had reached its roots down toward the sound of running water in the dead of winter, and had grown roots into her pipes. What does it mean for us humans to be like this, so fierce in our quest for nourishment? So generous in our mission to nourish others? So generative of life?

    The question brings us back to our parasha.  In parashat Yitro, the 5th Torah portion in the book of Shemot, Exodus, Moshe, Moses, is doing his best to guide the people in the wilderness. But one day his father-in-law, Yitro comes to pay a visit. Yitro sees Moses sitting as a judge all day long, hearing the disputes of all of the people. Yitro, an elder and a priest in Midianite, knows this is not the way to run a community. He says to Moses, "Now listen to me, I will give you counsel, and may God be with you." In the Hebrew the verse reads,

 יט עַתָּה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי אִיעָצְךָ וִיהִי אֱלֹהִים עִמָּךְ

אִיעָצְךָ means I will give you counsel. But listen closely to the word! In a beautiful ancient wordplay, the Hebrew word for counsel עצה, uses the same letters as the word for tree, עץ   אִיעָצְךָ, says Yitro. I will give you counsel. I will be a tree for you. I will tree-ify you. I will be a teacher of life skills, of resilience and sustainability. I will teach you the wisdom of natural law, and through your listening to me you may be closer to God.

    Yitro seess that Moses is trying to do it all himself, and that he will burn out quickly, and be of no use to himself or the community if this pattern continues. He teaches Moses to delegate leaders of thousands, hundreds, and tens. Essentially, to make a fractal system in the community – to make branches off of the trunk, smaller branches off of those branches, twigs off of those branches, leaves off of the twigs, together forming a robust communal system.   

    To live the Torah of Trees is to know we can't do it alone. Like the giant redwoods who connect their roots underground to help each other stand up straight, like Moses who can't continue to be the only source of wisdom in his community, we lean on each other. And we teach each other.

    A few verses later, after he has explained how to delegate responsibility, Yitro says another remarkable thing to Moses: "Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this – and so God commands you – you will be able to bear up; and all these people to go home in peace. (Ex 18:22-23).  And so God commands you. Nowhere in the Torah does God actually command Moses to delegate responsibility! In Exodus, the idea comes from Yitro. In Deuteronomy, Moses retells the story, leaving out his father-in-law and making the idea his own. So Yitro's words suggest something profound: by really tuning into what needs to be said any given moment, we can pass on holy wisdom to each other, and – if it is truly a message the listener needs to hear – that wisdom can be like a mitzvah, a divine commandment.

    Judaism teaches that prophecy ended after the last Biblical prophets, but Yitro's words suggest that there is Biblical precedent for us being the voice of God for each other, sharing our ideas, our insights, our feedback. אִיעָצְךָ -  I, your friend, your family member, your coworker, will be a tree of life for you. 

    I am part of a generation that was taught it was our job to save the world. Our identity has become wrapped up in doing, in saving, in fixing, in accomplishing. Yet to see a tree is to witness the elegance of being. The trees do their tree work simply by being what they are: by practicing resilience, by growing toward the sun, by generating habitat, by living out an ecological ethos of communal interdependence. Writer, activist, and feminist Courtney Martin,writes, "Our charge is not to save the world after all; it is to live in it, flawed and fierce, loving and humble." This is the Torah of the Tree of Life. 

    As we do our best to stay warm this winter, I bless us with the fresh eyes to see every tree we pass as a living mezuzah, a reminder that we are each living embodiments of Torah,  that we are each being renewed by and helping to renew the cosmic Tree of Life, that we are each imbued with the capacity for surprising growth, resilient living, and being in wise service to one another. In Rebbe Nachman's words: May all the foliage of the field — all grasses, trees, and plants —send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer...