This week we will enter the Hebrew month of Ellul, a time traditionally dedicated to preparation for the re-birthing that waits us in one month - Rosh Hashana, the New Year. In this week's portion of Shoftim, the Torah teaches us a basic tenet of both ecology and ethics, and asks a most provocative question:
When you besiege a city for many days, to wage war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a person, to enter the siege before you? (Deut. 20:19)
For thousands of years, our commentators have used this verse as a springboard for exploring shared characteristics of people and trees. Many ancient texts, including Sifri (Deut. 203) and Breishit Rabba (26) teach us that the verse's question may in fact be understood as a statement: a person is indeed analogous to a tree of the field. Many rabbinic texts use our verse as their basis for teaching that trees are like people; conscious, intelligent entities, somewhat like the Ents in Lord of the Rings. For example, our verse prompts Italian commentator Rabbi Menachem Rikanti to suggest that when a fruit tree is chopped down, its cry goes out over the entire world, but is not heard by humans.
The above comparison is often reversed, by suggesting that humans are in fact more similar to trees than we might think. For example, the Maharal of Prague is particularly fond of using trees as models from which we humans can learn. Following a kaballistic teaching that people are like inverted trees, with our roots in the Infinite and our fruits in the material sphere, he urges us to keep our roots firmly planted where they should be, by practicing mindfulness. If we do so, he assures us that neither wind, nor any other force, will be able to move us from our proper place (Gur Aryeh on Noach).
The Maharal explains that just as trees live from the earth, we derive our vitality from our connection to the Infinite, which we experience largely through through our head and our heart. Elsewhere, he writes that our body is our trunk, our limbs are our branches, and our words are our fruits (Netzach Yisrael Ch. 7, Gur Aryeh on Shelach). His younger cousin, the Maharsha of Krakow, added that our good deeds may also be considered our fruits (Maharsha on Ta'anit 5b).
The Sochatchover Rebbe, usually known as the Shem MiShmuel, after the name of his primary work, developed this approach substantially. He suggested that we ourselves are living in a yearly cycle of blossoming, ripening, withering and re-creation, just like the trees around us. This, he teaches, is why Rosh Hashana comes at the end of the summer, and the beginning of fall. At this point, our physical and spiritual fruits are ripe, and the seed of next year's fruit is ready to return to ground, to begin again with the approaching cycle of life. In other words, we have planted and we have harvested. We have put our efforts in, and we have learnt what worked, and what needed some more work, and so we are ready to begin that process over again, on Rosh Hashana (Shem MiShmuel on Rosh Hashana, second night).
As we read the words of our verse in the Torah this week, perhaps we can focus for a minute on locating the seed, the kernel within us, that we would like to take forward into the approaching year. And perhaps we will also identify husks and shells we will be happy to leave behind as we evolve. As Rabbi Jill Hammer writes so beautifully about this season, in her wonderful Jewish Book of Days:
Rich with the fruits of the year, we prepare to be winnowed down to a single seed: the new beginning of our lives.