Delivered at Temple Mount Sinai, August 29, 2014
Preparing my thoughts for tonight I was reminded, again and again, of the deep connection between mind-states and physical sensations. You see, typing away on my laptop (or trying to), my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing at me. It wasn’t emails or texts. It was the “Red Alert” app announcing rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel. One after another, the warnings reached my phone, each one representing a neighborhood seeking shelter. And with each alert, I experienced a wave of sadness felt in my heart, and a corresponding kick to my kishkes.
Reading this week’s parashah, called Shofetim, had a similar effect upon me. It hurts to say such a thing about Torah, whose ways are pleasantness and whose paths are peace. But this year, as I read the parashah I found myself stuck in some intertextual nightmare, with each passage presenting itself as a commentary on this summer’s horrific parade of headlines. Here’s a quick review of what we talk about in Torah this week: Police. Warfare. Siege. Genocide. False witnesses. Corpses found in open fields. Some weeks, I struggle to find relevance in the ancient words; this week, the portion assaults me with a terrifying timeliness.
In the midst of all the harshness, a measure of mercy stands out. For, though the portion twice warns against showing pity for fellow human beings (Deut 19:13; 19:21), kindness is shown for, of all things, fruit trees. Here’s the passage:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city (Deut 20:19)?
“Are trees of the field human?” Or, in an alternative translation, “For the human being is a tree of the field.” The Hebrew — ki ha’adam etz hasadeh — is ambiguous enough to allow for both translations, and the classical commentaries explore whether to read the verse as a rhetorical question or a statement, and what it means. With luminaries like Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, and ibn Ezra all over the map, we certainly have some room to interpret according to our own sensibilities.
I found some help from a latter-day commentator known by the name of his book of sermons, the Shem Mishmu’el. His given name was Shmuel Bornsztain, and he lived from 1855 until 1926. One of the interesting features of his book is that the essays are organized within each Torah portion by date, and labeled as such. He explored the similarities between trees and people in his Tu Bishvat sermon for 1914. It’s interesting to consider his words just over a century later, and to take note of the fact that he, like us, lived in a time of global tension and growing strife.
Bornsztain began his sermon with a rhetorical question of his own: Why don’t we pray tachanun, the prayers of supplication, on Tu Bishvat? The holiday is, after all, nothing more than a date on the tax calendar of ancient farmers. It’s not Yom Tov, there are no commanded acts, no miracle occurred, there’s nothing particularly “Jewish” about it. And yet, we leave out the prayers that make us feel down, recited as they are upon fallen faces. What’s this omission all about?
As it so happens, there’s a very good reason. Ki ha’adam etz hasadeh. “The human being is a tree of the field.” And since Tu Bishvat, which usually falls in late January or early February, sees the rains ending and the sap rising, it reminds us of the corresponding human dynamic: the rising and falling of divine energy and light within us, and the human journey from earthiness to spirituality. He writes:
The tree is the conduit that unites the fruit and the earth. It has the power to join them together. This is alluded to by its name, ilan, which equals ninety-one in gematria. Ninety-one is the sum of sixty-five, Adonai, and YHWH, twenty-six. Thus does a tree join together these two divine names, the one representing Earth, and the other, Heaven. And what is true of the tree is also true of the human being, which consists of an earth-bound body serving as the vessel for a heavenly soul (Shem Mishmuel, Tubishvat, 5674).
Just as a tree produces fruit by bringing together earth and sky, minerals and sunshine, so too do we reach our fullest potential through right action, elevating our baser selves, holding them up to the light, experiencing the cleansing rinse of grace. And there’s nothing more Jewish than that. Hence, concludes Bornsztain, no tachanun on Tu Bishvat.
Sometimes this joining together of heaven and earth is easier, and sometimes it’s more difficult. And maybe that’s the reason for the ambiguity in the Hebrew. Sometimes, we forget who we are, and we’re left wondering: are we really capable of lifting up our earth-bound fears? Are we really trees of the field, capable of bearing sweet fruit? But other times, we just know it to be true. We are trees of the field, drawing upon the rain and sunshine from above, transforming fear into awareness, feeling the divine energy — the chiut, or chi, or prana, whatever you prefer — bearing the best fruit of all, the one we call chesed, “lovingkindness.
These are tough times, and a Torah portion that confronts us with police, warfare, siege, genocide, false witnesses, and corpses found in open fields might add to our despair. But it’s the heartrending and gut-wrenching seasons, when it’s easiest to doubt it, that it’s important to believe it: betach she’adam hu etz hasadeh. Of course we are trees of the field. Of course we can rise above our fears and be vessels for divine energy. Of course we can generate the fruits of kindness and good deeds.
As we celebrate Shabbat Shofetim, our “Red Alert” apps blessedly fallen silent along with the rockets, and move from the celebration into a new week, may we honor those places within that question and doubt, even as we find our way back, again and again, to those better selves that dwell within, just waiting to bear the good ans sweet fruit of blessing and shalom.