Elegy for a Tree
Guest post by R. Barry Kornblau
The large tree in front of my house went down last night. The mighty winds of the great storm Sandy beat relentlessly upon it, bowing it ever further down until it finally came to rest on a neighbor’s lawn across the street. As I stood outside watching it collapse in slow-motion (our concrete sidewalk was pinning down its roots), my mind and heart were divided. Mostly, of course, they were with with the millions who had lost electricity, their homes, and their lives. At the same time, a personal sadness also overtook me and my eyes moistened with tears.
The sadness wasn’t just because a few days ago, that tree had supported – as it has for many years – a pinata to delight my kids and their friends at a birthday party. Rather, for a long time now, I have always looked up to, and upon, trees as more majestic denizens of our planet than we humans. They beautify our world, live longer than we do, and are powerful and massive enough to uproot concrete sidewalks with their thirsty roots, and to destroy our cars, our houses, and even our lives with their massive branches. They dwarf us, shade us, and even outnumber us on our shared home, Earth, by roughly 60:1. We and trees even depend directly upon one another to live: we are sustained by inhaling the waste product they exhale (oxygen), and they are sustained by inhaling the waste product we exhale (carbon dioxide). Likening trees and humans to one another in a single phrase (Deut. 20:19), the Torah highlights that intimate relationship. Detailing the laws of besieging an enemy city, that verse further prohibits us from destroying a fruit tree for, as R. Bachaye puts it, “a blessing is in it.” Even where human lives are expendable, trees’ lives are not.
In the Garden of Eden, one tree tantalized Adam and Eve with its promise of eternal life while a second tempted them to become like God, knowing good and evil. Trees symbolize and embody eternity and wisdom, prompting the wisest of men to remind us (Prov. 3:18) that the Torah’s eternal wisdom is “a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.”
I [R. Levin] recall the early days, from 1905 onward, when it was granted to me with God’s kindness to ascend to the holy land, and I arrived at Jaffa. There I first went to visit our great master, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who received me with good cheer, as was his sacred custom to receive all people. We chatted together on various Torah topics. After an early minchah, he went out, as was his hallowed custom, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts. I went along. On the way I plucked a twig or flower. Our great master was taken aback when he saw this. He told me gently:
“Believe me — in all my days, I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or 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 above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner message in its silence. Every creature utters its song (of praise of the Creator).”
Those words, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply on my heart. From that time on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.
And so too, should this story, about two men with pure and holy hearts, engrave itself deeply upon our hearts, strengthening our sense of compassion for all things: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are upon all His works.” (Ps. 145:9). In this way, we shall speed the day when all nations will declare “that the Lord reigns” (Ps. 96:12) and we will easily hear when “the trees of the field will burst forth in joyful song” (ibid, v. 12).
In the meantime, though, my tasks – and those of others who have lost trees in this astonishing storm – are simpler. Most importantly, to pray and to render practical aid, to the extent we can, to those requiring immediate succor from the storm. And then, to clear away the great carcass blocking our street; to repair our torn sidewalk and lawn; and, most importantly, to replant. As I stood outside inspecting the damage, my neighbor told me that her magnificent sidewalk tree had came down in a storm thirty years ago, but that they had replanted right away. Their new tree is strong in the wind and looks lovely all year round to boot. An investment that pays such rich dividends, decade after decade – sounds like a wise move to me.
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