January 14, 2022

Tu B’Shevat and The Power of Trees

By Simon Eder

Tradition follows the school of Hillel and the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, Sunday this coming week, marks the new year for trees. It is the children’s author Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree that I am reminded of as we approach this festival, which unwittingly contains so many parallels for Jewish notions of trees and is also such an apt tale for our world today.

The book follows the life of a boy, who develops a relationship with an apple tree. In his childhood, he enjoyed playing with the tree – climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches and eating her apples. As he grows older he tends to visit her less and then only when he wants to satisfy his materials needs – wood to build a home, the tree’s apples in order to sell and make money, the tree’s trunk to create a boat. In an effort to make the boy happy at each stage the tree is willing to give a part of herself. In the final pages, both the tree and the boy feel the strain of their respective ‘giving’ and ‘taking’ natures. When only a stump remains, the tree is no longer happy. The boy does return a final time however, now as an elderly man, to greet her. The tree is sad because she can no longer provide him shade, apples or any of the materials as in the past. He ignores this as he simply wants a place to sit and rest, which he then does on the stump. And with this final stage of giving, ‘’the tree was happy.’’(1)

Even as we admire a magnificent tree or awesome landscape, few would see nature as sacred.

First published in 1964, the book is in fact extremely controversial within children’s literature, largely stemming from whether the relationship depicted is a positive or an abusive one. It has been subject to multiple interpretations. It is certainly not one of simple moralising – a meditation on aging, perhaps a metaphor for various relationships.

Overwhelmingly I am drawn to an understanding of the book as an appeal to the re-sacralisation of Mother Nature. Since the dawn of time, humankind has looked upon nature and seen the divine and yet today, even as we admire a magnificent tree or awesome landscape, few would see nature as sacred. The boundless giving with which the tree is synonymous is an appeal to the awe and respect that we must surely show to the natural world that surrounds us.

There is plenty to cross-reference here, in this story, with the tradition’s perspective and veneration for trees. The anthropomorphisation of the tree for example reminds us of a fascinating midrash:

‘’All trees converse, as it were, with one another. Indeed one may add, all trees converse with mortals; all trees – created, as trees were, to provide fellowship for mortals.’’(2) The central thrust of this, as in the story, is the theme of companionship. The midrash, playing on a double meaning for the word ‘fellowship’ which may also be understood as a ‘benefit’, is inviting us to explore a deeper affinity that may be found in our encounter with trees.

The giving nature of the tree in this story also reminds us of the many places throughout the tradition that humankind is likened to trees. Particularly pertinent in this instance for example is the reference in The Ethics of The Fathers comparing ‘’one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds….to a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few…’’(3) The implication of course being that our lives should be rooted in mitzvot and righteous actions. Just as The Giving Tree implicitly urges us to learn from trees, Tanach is replete with analogies that we may grasp from a meditation on their power. Psalm 92 which forms a part of the liturgy on Friday night for example declares: ‘’The righteous bloom like a date-palm; they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon’’(4)

Trees in so many ways stand as testament to faith itself.

Kant’s famous line ‘’From such crooked timber as humankind is made of nothing entirely straight can be made” might be apt but the tradition more often than not appeals widely to positive inferences about the human character that can be made when referencing trees. Illustrating this, it is the poetry of Jeremiah that comes to mind:

Blessed is he who trusts in the LORD,
Whose trust is the LORD alone. He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.(5)

Perhaps the supreme example of a reference to trees as to indicating the potential for human greatness comes from Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak, a Babylonian rabbi, of the fourth and fifth generations of amoraim who lived in the 4th century of the common era. He asked: ‘’Why are Torah matters likened to a tree? As it is stated: “It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it” (Proverbs 3:18)? This verse comes to tell you that just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large piece, so too, minor Torah scholars can sharpen great Torah scholars and enable them to advance in their studies.’’(6) To be able to draw out such inferences through meditation on trees certainly demonstrates the immensity of the rabbinic imagination.

Trees are of course used in allegories or metaphors other than for those about human character. Deutero-Isaiah for example alludes to the covenantal relationship with the following:  ‘’For the days of My people shall be as long as the days of a tree’’(7) It is the potential for longevity that trees have that is perhaps the most remarkable thing about them. While mortals remain on earth for but a flicker in the vast expanse of time, trees can indeed stand the test of time. They are both constant, anchored to the depths and yet forever changing and evolving in a continuous cycle of growth, decay and rebirth.

Trees in so many ways stand as testament to faith itself. This is no more so true than in the selection of this time in which to celebrate their new year. Not as one might have thought in the height of Summer, when in full bloom and all their majesty but in the deep mid-winter. The Medieval commentator, Rashi (1040-1105), explains that it is at this point that the ground has become saturated with the rains of the new year, causing the sap to start rising in the trees, which means that the fruit can begin to bud. Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1310) writing two centuries later points out that the date of the 15th Shevat is the midpoint between autumn and spring. Once half the winter has passed, its strength is weakened and the budding process may begin. Both explanations therefore invite us to have faith in what is to come.

As we celebrate Tu B’Shevat this year may we find a fellowship with the trees that surround us, may we meditate on their wonder to become the very best versions of ourselves and may they renew for us our very sense of faith itself!

(1) Silverstein, The Giving Tree
(2) Genesis Rabbah 13:2(3) Ethics of The Fathers 3:17
(4) Psalm 92:13
(5) Jeremiah 17:7-8
(6) Taanit 7a:12
(7) Isaiah 65:22

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year.