Choosing The Tree Of Life

Anyone who’s had to deal with kids, either as a parent or as a teacher, has heard the battle-cry and defense “He made me do it!”. As the adults in the room, we work hard to convince our charges that we can’t help or change what others do and can only control ourselves.

Surely, I’m not the only adult who says so in an appropriately sympathetic-yet-authoritative voice that covers a deep treasure trove of guilt. Why guilt? Because this lesson is one that is hard to swallow, even for adults. How often does it happen that life (read: Hashem) puts us in a situation so challenging, so uncomfortable, so painful, but that we have no control over? And how often do we turn to Hashem, telling Him that the situation is untenable and that it must be changed…ignoring the fact that it is we who need to change? After all, as we tell the kids, we can only control ourselves, right?!

I remember being taken aback and even a bit indignant when we first told my husband’s Rebbe about some of the medical challenges we were facing with Temima. His reaction was to slap his hand on the table and exclaim: “That’s wonderful—you’ll grow so much together from this!”

I was looking for a magic formula and a reassurance that it would all be okay, and he was instead telling us that there was a choice to be made. The challenge had been given to us, unasked for and unwanted. Our reaction was our only choice.

Tu B’Shvat is possibly the vaguest quasi-holiday in our calendar. Other than the minhagim that some sources cite about eating fruit, all we really have to go on is the halachik guidelines that declare it a special day (no tachanun and no fasting) and the gemarah that tells us that this is the New Year, the judgment day, for the trees. But why is this something that we relate to, and what meaning can we take away from this holiday? It seems that when we take a deeper look, the Torah quite often uses trees as both parables and analogies. Let’s see what message there is that relates to us, as humans striving to serve Hashem, from the Rosh Hashana of the trees.

Throughout the Torah, mankind has a well-documented connection to trees: from the very start, Adam’s first trial and failure was acted out in a story of trees. Yaakov planted cedar trees to be later used by his descendants. Before war, one who had planted a vine but hadn’t harvested from it yet was sent home. And once at war, it was prohibited to cut down fruit trees during a siege, with the reasoning that the tree is not an armed enemy that would pose a threat to a person. The verse “כי האדם עץ השדה הוא has been explained by Chazal to more deeply explain the connection between man and trees:“for a man is [just like] a tree in the field”. Dovid Hamelech, too, often used and built upon this analogy of man and tree.

The simplest explanation for this analogy is that just as a tree is rooted in the ground and grows upwards, so too, a person is rooted in the physical world, needing its amenities to stay alive. As we grow, our branches are meant to extend upwards—that is, our aspirations and expectations of ourselves should grow with us, making us reach for the heavens, for spirituality. Our goal in this life is to produce fruit—to leave a mark of accomplishment that will better the world for the generations we leave.

Beyond man, Dovid Hamelech specifically compares a tzaddik, a righteous person, to a tree. The very first chapter of tehillim, praises a righteous man, and verse by verse blesses him with prosperity and longevity. Commentators explain that this righteous man is planted, so to speak, near the well of Torah, just as the tree described in the verse is planted riverside. He is thereby able to sustain himself and constantly draw on the Torah’s wisdom and reach his full spiritual growth, producing fruit to sustain generations.

In every person is the desire and aspiration to live a meaningful life. In our hearts, we all want to be the tzaddik, remembered for having led lives of substance. [As the well-known parable points out, it is the dash on the tombstone that matters; no dentist wants to be remembered for his great dentistry (‘Here lies a great dentists…he filled the holes in many peoples lives…drilled his way into their hearts…and has now filled his very last cavity!’) but rather for his value as a person.] The Maor Vashemesh makes this very observation and asks: what gives the tzaddik strength to persevere over the distractions of the world and accomplish? From where does his draw his will?

To answer this question, being that the tzaddik is called a tree, we have to go back to some of the very first trees, the ones that existed in the perfect world of Gan Eden.

Gan Eden, as it was before the sin of Adam, was a perfect world, intrinsically different from the world we live in now. It was a world where Hashem was revealed and no uncertainty existed. All of nature was in harmony with man, and man lived openly with Hashem. (The root of the word Eden is refinement—this was a world in which no coarseness, no shell or barrier between man and G-d existed.)

Within Gan Eden, there were many trees, all of which Adam and Chava were told to enjoy. Two trees, however, were special: the Etz Hachaim and the Etz Hadaas Tov V’rah (literally translated as the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad).

Adam, having been created immortal, had no need for the Etz Hachaim until after he ate from the second tree. Once he sinned and was punished with, among other things, eventual death, Hashem put armed angels in place to guard the Etz Hachaim so that Adam couldn’t eat from it. But never is it explained outright what the so-called Tree of Life is. Let’s examine it.

The meforshim explain that the Etz Hachaim was the source of all spiritual ambition and growth in the world. It was the mystical embodiment of the Torah—which, too, is called an “Etz Chaim,” a Tree of Life.

The world Adam lived in after he sinned, the world we live in now, is not “Adin,” refined, any longer. In fact, our world is characterized most strongly by the hiddenness of Hashem and the barriers there are in seeing Him and serving Him. (Olam, our world, is closely connected to the word, ne’elam, hidden, for this reason). We’re badly in need of the spiritual food of the Etz Hachaim, but within us is rooted the taste of the Etz Hadaas that Adam ate—a deeply rooted desire for bad, a desire that’s as compelling, if not more, than our desire for good.

A tzaddik, then, is someone who manages to maintain his connection to, and desire for, the Etz Hachaim, manifested for us in the Torah, the Etz Chaim. Against all odds, he’s uprooted the taste of the Etz Hadaas, and regained the clarity that was the nature of Gan Eden where Hashem’s presence was clear. In his world, there is no aftertaste of Adam’s sin, and he freely partakes of the Tree of Life, unhindered by the fiery angels.

Let’s go back to our original question, and apply it back: In the context of the tzaddik that we all strive to be, what is the message and meaning of Tu B’Shvat?

The month of Shvat is historically very important. It was on the first day of Shvat that Moshe stood before all of B’nai Yisrael to explain the Torah to them a final time before his passing. The possuk says that Moshe explained the Torah “very well”. The meforshim learn from here that Moshe explained the Torah in all 70 languages of the world. In preparing us for the challenges that would come when we would leave the Eden-like existence in the desert and move on to life in the ‘real world,’ Moshe explained the Torah not just in 70 languages, but in 70 different ways and manners, making it, the Tree of Life, fully accessible for all generations until the final Moshiach.

The Torah is available and applicable to every Jew, at every time. The obstacle is only in our hearts and minds. Being that we live in a post-sin world, we cannot trust the direction of our instincts and our hearts. We sometimes look at something, analyze it, and are sure it is sourced from the Etz Hachaim, not realizing that it’s quite the opposite. The stench of the Etz Hadaas and its venom is unrecognized by our senses, and we can’t distinguish what’s good and what’s bad. The lesson and reminder of Tu B’Shvat is then our saving grace.

R’ Chaim Vital writes from the teachings of his Rebbe, the Ari z”l, that Tu B’Shvat is a tikkun, a spiritual reparation, for the fruit that Adam illicitly ate. When we eat the fruits, correctly and only for the sake of connecting to Hashem, on this night we symbolize renewed commitment to limiting and correctly channeling materialism and not straying after what we’re commanded to resist. Thus, the tikkun is made.

The tzaddik that we spoke about was compared to a tree: והיה כעץ שתול על פלגי מים.and he will be like a tree by banks of water.” R’ Shimshon Rephael Hirsch questions the use of a plural here—the tree can be placed near a river’s bank, but it cannot by the banks of many rivers! R’ Hirsch teaches us that the plural word is here clearly to teach that the tzaddik is aware of the many choices in life, and feels the same pulls that every human does. It is through his choices, in where he chooses to root himself among those many paths, that his greatness emerges. He sees the many paths in life, the many choices, and doesn’t allow the lingering taste of the Etz Hadaas to distract him from seeking the Tree of Life.

The power of choice was the first power granted to Adam, and is a power that we maintain today. We choose our actions, and Hashem not only allows the choice to actualize (we choose to move our hands, so Hashem allows our hand to move) but guides and furthers a person along the path that he’s chosen. Decisions we make in seeking out Hashem add up together to equal the sum of who we are. The tzaddik sees the many paths available to him—the good and the bad—and consistently chooses the one that is in harmony with the 70 paths of the Torah, the one that will bring him close to Hashem.

The Vilna Gaon reverses our question about what a tzaddik is, and asks instead what a rasha, a wicked person is. Not surprisingly, he too stays with the vegetation analogy and compares a rasha to tall reeds blowing in the wind, and a tzaddik to a cedar tree. The rasha, he explains, is like a reed that blows every which way, following the trend of the wind. No conviction or deep belief leads the actions and swaying of the wind—the rasha is easily influenced by the political and social climate of his times, forgetting and abandoning the message of the Etz Hachaim, whose fruit he should be seeking. The tzaddik, however, is a cedar tree: firm and unbending, unswayed in its upwards growth. The tzaddik looks only upwards, to Hashem, in making his decisions and aims to once again live as Adam did before the sin.

Chazal teach us that on Tu B’Shvat one should daven for a good esrog for the upcoming year, as the judgment of all trees is determined on this day. The esrog symbolizes the heart of a person (while the lulav, hadassim, and aravot symbolize other body parts). Living in the reality of a world that changed when Adam ate from the Etz Hadaas, we no longer have the clarity to know what is good and what is bad, and more than ever need to pray for a good heart, a discerning heart. The many paths and choices that lay before us are not black and white, and often we confuse bad for good, talking ourselves into all sorts of manipulations. On Tu B’Shvat, we have the opportunity to ask Hashem for a good heart so that we can make the right choices and connect to the Etz Hachaim.

Let’s end off with a very esoteric commentary from the Pri Tzedek. He points out that the possuk that introduces the two trees in Gan Eden seems to be a fragment. It says, “and the Etz Hachaim was in the center of the Garden, and the Etz Hadaas Tov V’ra,” and abruptly ends. It would seem that having told us the location of the first tree, the possuk should tell us the location or proximity of the second as well, but no information is given. He explains that the possuk is really telling us about one tree: a tree that has two facets, only one of which can be accessed at any given time. (For those of my readers who are science people, this is like the idea of Schrodinger’s Cat—the cat is alive and dead while the box is closed and its actual state is unknown. The tree here is both trees, so long as no one tries to eat from it.) The Pri Tzedek explains that the effect of the tree and the facet accessed depends entirely on the intentions of the eater. Both realities exist in the realm of potential, but the everlasting effect, life and death, is dependent solely on the choice that is made.

Eating from the Tree with the intention of closeness to Hashem and connecting to His Oneness would lead a person to have fruit of the Etz Hachaim. If one eats from it with intentions of disconnection from the Hashem’s ultimate goal, rationalizing and blurring the lines of good and evil, the fruit will be that of the Etz Hadaas. The possuk that introduces the Tree uses the words, “ נחמד למראה וטוב למאכל-pleasant to the eyes and good to eat,” then goes on to say that in the center of the garden was this Tree (or trees). The meforshim relate these two phrases respectively to the two trees (or the two facets of the Tree): the Etz Hachaim, in touch with Hashem’s plans and control of the universe was “pleasant to the eyes”. The ingestion of its fruit was an act of understanding and internalizing the perfection and complete pleasantness of the world. By contrast, the phrase “and good for eating” refers to the second (aspect of the) tree, daas tov v’rah, knowing good and evil. This is the mentality of judging and finding fault with Hashem’s plan, and seeing things in this world first through a lens of personal benefit. When Chava observes the Tree, she first notes that “good to eat” and thus, her choice is made.

Chazal teach us that prior to the sin, the trees themselves, bark and all, were edible. It is interesting to note that on Tu B’shvat we eat from the fruit of the trees. This is odd, because only the trees are judged on Tu B’shvat; the gemarah in Rosh Hashana tells us that the actual fruits are judged on Shavuos. When we choose on this day to eat the fruits for the closeness to Hashem the holiday brings, and not for worldly reasons, we are attempting to access the pre-sin level of the Etz Hachaim, a world where everything is pleasantly in sync with and usable for Hashem’s service.

Tu B’Shvat is about the choices a person can make. Two potential realities can exist at once, and a person must make the choice to connect to the reality of Hashem’s Goodness and Oneness. Accept His plan, accept the circumstances He has carefully arranged for you, and let it make you, not break you.

We all know people who have been through hellish challenges and have suffered heartbreaking losses. Some of those people have gone on to establish charities, organizations, schools, and inspiring messages, growing from their pain and bringing forth healing. In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to have been helped by two such organizations, both of which were started by individuals who did not want anyone to go through what they did alone.

These are people who have absorbed the message of the tzaddik and are grasping and eating from the Etz Hachaim with every action. May we merit to accept the challenges and circumstances that Hashem has hand-picked for us with love and correctly choose the path of life, the path of the tzaddik.

One Comment on “Choosing The Tree Of Life

  1. Beautiful post! Such a relatable message to a previously somewhat unrelatable time of year. Thank you for sharing some of the inspiration and growth that Temima has brought you with all of us!


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