Tuesday, January 14, 2014


by Alan Zelenetz
Rabbi Alan Zelenetz, M.Phil. has been professionally involved in Jewish education, academia, and independent scholarship for more than twenty-five years, including leadership positions as principal of Torah and General Studies of Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and Director of Curriculum Development of Teachers College Innovations, Columbia University.

From their cosmic vantage point in outer space, NASA satellites orbiting our planet beam down real-time streaming video of Earth’s surface. They reveal that 75% of our world is “a relatively unchanging ocean of blue,” the remaining 25% “a dynamic green” terra firma, confirming the dominance of vegetation and the fecundity of plant life on dry land. It’s not difficult for us to re-imagine NASA’s spectacular photographs as screenshots capturing the magnificence of the third day of Creation described in Sefer Bereishit, the Book of Genesis – a gathering of waters followed by growing grass and the flourishing of flowers and trees.

NASA’s cutting edge science and technology provide a God’s-eye view of the plant world unique to our modern day and age, but the variety and beauty of Earth’s species of flora has been the subject of literary poets for millennia. From Ovid of Ancient Rome, who sings of elms and oaks and laurel trees transformed, to the 18th century Scottish lyricist Robert Burns, whose “O my Love’s like a red, red rose” remains, perhaps, the best known simile in verse, the botanical side of nature has forever held fascination for us humans who share our globe and gardens with the kingdom of plants. In his fantasy epic, Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien goes so far as to envision the Ents, a noble race of walking, talking trees, while contemporary American poet Louise Glück personifies a real flower, “The Red Poppy,” which speaks to us in a floral first person, “I have / a lord in heaven/ called the sun, and open / for him, showing him / the fire of my own heart…”
Though talking trees are nothing if not a prime example of poetic license, there are many scientists today who embrace the metaphor in their practice. In a recent New Yorker essay, “The Intelligent Plant,” journalist Michael Pollan reports the latest research in plant biology. He describes attempts to prove (not without controversy and critics) that plants are capable of cognition and communication, and he includes as an example a leaf’s ability “to signal other leaves to mount a defense” against impending infestation by insects. Astonishing as is the scientific hypothesis of “thinking” plants, emotionally stirring as is the imagery of poets, they ought to be comfortably familiar to us as Jews, who have been sensitive to our seed-bearing cohabitants on earth literally since the beginning of traditional Jewish time.

Had there been an ancient Green Party, the Torah would have been its platform. The very first pages of the Jewish Bible introduce humankind at its origin, woman and man implanted with divine purpose in the Garden of Eden. Commenting on this edenic scene, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch intuits God’s purpose: the destiny of humankind and the earth is Paradise. By working the earth, human beings raise “its purely physical nature into playing a part in the…moral purposes of the world…we are shown what we should be, how we should live, how this world of ours would form a paradise…”

Several Books later, Sefer Devarim offers one of the most celebrated examples of the Written Law’s ethical and ecological sensitivity, “Lo tashchit…do not destroy [fruit-bearing] trees by wielding an ax against them, for from them you will eat, do not cut them down.” Based on this proscription, Judaism derives an overriding moral principle known as bal tashchit, prohibiting any random destruction or wanton waste in all walks of life.

An Aggadic passage in the Oral Law carries Judaism’s recognition of the sanctity of plant life on Earth to an extraordinary extreme: Rabbi Yochanan used to say, “If you are about to plant a sapling and a cry goes out, ‘Come, hurry, the Moshiach is here!’, be certain first to plant your sapling, then go and greet the Messiah.”

Yes, our Jewish love affair with fruit, flower, and foliage has, indeed, been an eternal one. We can already discern the strains of a love song in Talmudic times when the Sages teach us how to bless the trees “who” share our lives, “Tree, O tree, with what should I bless you? Your fruit is already sweet...Your shade is plentiful… May it be G‑d’s will that all the trees planted from your seeds should be like you . . .” And it continues in our own day and age, when Yossi Klein Halevi reminds us – in describing a young Israeli kibbutznik’s attempt to preserve a tactile encounter with the fruit he harvests by machine –  “If you don’t say good morning to the tree, he had learned from the old-timers, the tree won’t say happy new year to you.”


To speak of plant life and Judaism is to speak, of course, of Tu Bishvat, the day marked in the Mishnah and on the Jewish calendar as our New Year of Trees. This designation carries specific halachic obligations regarding agricultural tithes, both in the ancient and contemporary lands of Israel. But, true to our theme, we keep here to the celebratory and symbolic aspects of the holiday

In his Ziv ha’Minhagim, Rabbi Yehudah Dov Zinger paints a scene of  ”the bare fruit tree in the dead of winter showing little sign of vitality; nonetheless, as its New Year of 15 Shevat approaches, life begins to course through its roots once again, it revives with the flowing sap.” And Eliyahu Kitov, in Sefer ha’Toda’ah, explains why the fifteenth of Shevat is considered a rosh ha’Shanah and celebrated, “…because [Tu Bishvat] has an aspect of praise of the land, as this is the time that the soil renews its vigor and the fruits are full and praiseworthy, which is what the land is known for…Thus, the day the land renews itself is, indeed, a day of great joy for all of Israel.”
To reiterate, in Jewish thought and practice a tree is no simple metaphor. The trees of Tu Bishvat are at the essence of our understanding the interrelatedness of God’s world. The Torah, in fact makes the comparison over and over. In both Tehillim and in the Talmud we find fruit trees and cedars breaking into songful praise of God. And the prophet Isaiah declares explicitly, “For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.”

Indeed, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, pointedly asks us to “reflect on the lessons we can derive from our affinity with our botanical analogue.” The Rebbe goes on to suggest that, just as a tree’s primary components are its roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and fruit, so, too, people’s spiritual lives consist of the same: “The roots represent faith, our source of nurture and perseverance. The trunk, branches and leaves are the body of our spiritual lives – our intellectual, emotional and practical achievements. The fruit is our power of spiritual procreation – the power to influence others, to plant a seed in a fellow human being and see it sprout, grow and bear fruit.”

This identification of human being and tree is the foundation of the moral dimension of Tu Bishvat. It is the living Torah teaching us Chesed, to feel compassion for all living things, and it is embodied in a living example recounted in the memoirs of Reb Aryeh Levin, who recalls an early afternoon stroll with Rav Kook in the fields of Jaffa: “On the way, I plucked some branch or flower. Our great master was taken aback; and then he told me gently, ‘Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on Earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning… Every creature utters its song…’  

In I And Thou, philosopher Martin Buber explores how, as human beings, we come to understand the world by interacting with the others, the objects, and the creatures all around us. Buber posits a higher level of human existence that depends upon a series of  “I/Thou” relationships, the most exalted of which is with the Divine, “One who truly meets the world goes out also to God.”

Not surprisingly, Buber turns to a tree to help define his idea of an “I/Thou” relationship, asserting that “…as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It…Whatever belongs to the tree is included…its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars…I encounter…the tree itself.”


In her book Celebrate!, author Lesli Koppelman Ross catalogues many Jewish holiday practices and customs throughout history and from around the globe. Kabbalists early on created a Tu Bishvat seder that has been perpetuated in many fruits and many forms, ranging from the mystic to the ecological to the feminist, down to our own day. In some Mediterranean Jewish communities on Tu Bishvat “women would embrace trees at night, praying for fertility and many children. In Salonica, it was believed that the trees themselves embrace on Tu Bishvat, and anyone seeing them do so would have his/her wish fulfilled.” And so we seem to circle back, within a Jewish frame of reference now, to Tolkien’s Ents and Ovid’s trees and transformations.

The French linguist Émile Benveniste made the observation that “ ‘personal pronouns’ are never missing from among the signs of a language, no matter what its type, epoch, or region may be. A language without expression of person cannot be imagined.” Poet Maureen N. McClane offers her own riff on Benveniste’s thought, “To command you, to address you, I must think you. ’I’ must think ‘you. And yet even as I think you I interfuse you with my own nature…”

On Tu Bishvat, “I” must think “Tree,” “Tree” must think “Thou.” We may even, in homage to Benveniste, pun on the “Tu” in Tu Bishvat and think of it as “tu,” the French second person pronoun of affection and familiarity, reminding us that You, the trees of Shevat, and we, the people of this planet, share earthly and earthy roots from which we draw succor of body, mind, and spirit. In our oneness we join voices in celebration of our Creator.

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