One of the first things I noticed at Elat Chayyim (“Tree of Life”) Retreat Center near Woodstock, New York, were the huge trees, especially some venerable giant pines growing outside the dining area. As days went by, the trees seemed to me more than just features of the landscape, but rather as fellow beings who partook in the love of the environment, creatures from whom I could learn. It was not so fanciful when I learned that Jewish tradition compares trees to human beings. Humans seem to rule the animal kingdom while trees are the most developed of plants. Both receive nourishment from our roots and aspire upward toward the light, and as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi pointed out, both trees and human beings never stop growing. Moreover, he often pointed out that the growing edge of a tree is on the outside, and so we–and our tradition–must continue reaching outward in order to be renewed.
“For is a tree of the field human” (to withdraw before you in a siege, Deuteronomy 20:19)? The biblical verse prohibiting the logging of fruit trees during a siege can also be read literally as: “For a human being is a tree of the field” Ki ha-adam etz ha-sadeh כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה
In forests, jungles, orchards, and cities, trees are essential to life on earth, since they provide oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and remove pollutants, while also providing countless expressions of beauty, shade, food, wood, and soil conservation.
Trees have been sacred to many cultures and religions. In Judaism, we have pomegranates decorations on our Torahs, apples and honey for the new year, citrons and palm branches to wave on Sukkot, and many other customs, texts, and motifs involving trees and their fruits. Trees have great importance in Jewish tradition as symbols of wisdom and Torah. In mystical thought the Tree is a symbol of the flow of divine energy into the universe.
Join me in this Gateway of Trees to explore the symbol of the Tree in Jewish tradition and in your life.
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