A Tree of the Field

A terebinth of Mamre.
A terebinth of Mamre.

(Sunday, 15 August 2021/ 7 Elul 5781

I had the honor of delivering our shul’s Davar Torah yesterday morning. For whatever reason, including that engineering inside forced us to daven in the very humid parking lot outside, the attendance exceeded a minyan but was still low. Blessed are those who helped us to make the minyan. However, as they say in infomercial land, “But wait!  There’s more.”

Shoftim, “Judges,” the parsha yesterday, is primarily about judges, as its title and opening word directs us. I chose to teach on two more obscure parts of the parsha. Let us unpack one of them again here. It is the beautiful metaphor that resides in Deuteronomy 20:19, “Man is a tree of the field.”

Trees of the field touch each other, with their branches and with their roots. As Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “The Rebbe,” taught, “…We are like leaves extending from twigs branching out from larger twigs on branches of larger branches, until we reach the trunk and roots of us all. Each of us has our place on this tree of life, each its source of nurture — and on this the tree relies for its very survival …. When one Jew does an act of kindness (Chesed and Tzedek, kindness and justice are intertwined), all our hands extend with his or hers.”

In 1578, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague, interpreted this as:  “For man is a tree of the field and his branches are in heaven, for the head, which is the root of a man, faces upwards, and this is why man is called a tree of the field planted in heaven, and through his intellect, he is planted in his place, which, if all of the winds were to come and blow, they would not move him from his place.” (Sefer Gur Aryeh, as quoted in MyJewishearning.com).

In its article on this sentence, MyJewishLearning.com quotes a modern Israeli poet, Nathan Zach, writing about this line after the Holocaust. Although Nathan Zach had an understandably rather bitter interpretation of this line at the time, his poem, nevertheless, is beautiful in its own way:

“When is man like a tree of the field?

Like the tree man flourishes.

Like man the tree is cut off.

And I do not know

where I have been nor where I will be-

like a tree of the field.

“When is man like a tree of the field?  etc.

The rest is a question mark to ask ourselves. Like Hannah Szenesh (z”l) wrote in the poem she left behind in her prison cell before the Nazis executed her, life can be, at times, “a fleeting question mark.”

Whether the approach is positive or negative, happy or bitter, the point is the same. A person is like a tree of the field. We are young, we are old, we touch each other. We need each other.

There is a story in the Talmud of a weary traveler who rests under the shade of a massive tree. It is a contrast to the story of Jonah, who benefits from the shade of a gourd, which grew and shriveled while he rested and Jonah was chastised for not caring about the gourd. In the Talmudic story, the weary traveler wants to bless the tree for providing him with shade, and, at first, cannot think of an appropriate blessing. Finally, the most symbolic blessing of thanks to the tree comes to this traveler. He says, “May your seeds be like you.” This is a beautiful blessing because not only are we reminded that a tree is in a field with other trees around it, but we are also reminded that trees came from seeds from other trees and can help create future trees through its own seeds. It is also a very touching l’dor v’dor thought, may you merit the blessing that your next generation, either biologically or through other ways you touch others, may they be blessed to carry a part of you with them.

“Man is a tree of the field” is appropriately placed side by side with “You shall appoint judges,” because we are still a part of the same field and we are still responsible for each other.

Before the COVID pandemic pushed it to second place, but rising again and exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, has been what I (and others) call the “trifecta pandemic” of loneliness, isolation and despair. Based on lessons from Rabbi Bickhardt in his Midrash class, at the end of each of the seven units of creation, HaShem faced a multiple choice selection: a) say nothing; b) say “Tov,” “It was good”; or c) say “Tov m’od,” “It was very good.” Therefore, the sages asked, “Did HaShem ever use the two words, Lo Tov, “No good,” together, and, lo and behold, as we used to say, they found that combination twice, for the same reason, “It is not good for a person to be alone.”

At least four books on my shelf touch this in different ways, if you would like to study it further. Surely, and sadly, there are many others. The contemporary granddaddy is probably, Bowling Alone. From its publisher’s blurb: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.” In 2014, Dr. Jean Twenge revised her major work, Generation Me (“Why today’s young Americans … are more miserable than ever before.”) implying that some of the misery, at least, relates to these young Americans not seeing themselves as “trees of the field.” In 2005, the American writer, Joan Didion, published My Year of Magical Thinking about her first year of widowhood and the recurring thought that her husband (z”l) would re-appear that he would suddenly help her fight the loneliness into which she was plunged. Last, but not least, is the current Surgeon General’s book, Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Judaism, at its core, is a religion of community, an antidote to loneliness. We require minyanim for certain prayers. A major Jewish ethic is, “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh – All Jews are Responsible for One Another” (Talmud, Shevuot 39a). Pew’s 2020 Profile of the American Jewish Population (stay tuned for my presentations on this study) emphasized that feeling connected is a major reason for those who choose to affiliate with shuls. It is even more about the fellow congregants you will meet through the shul, that they will care about your and you will care about them, that is even more important more often than the clergy you will meet at the shul. Look at how the web site has evolved for the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. There is more space now for “Meet Our Members” than there is for “Meet Our Clergy.” With due respect for any pandemic-imposed seating (Isn’t “social distancing” an oxymoron, how can you be social and distanced?), when a shul resonates with you, you sense that you are
“a tree of the field.”

May you be blessed to be a “tree of the field” in your shul, in your family, in your friends, wherever you seek not to be alone. Amen.

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