Perhaps one of the campiest Jewish songs from my childhood proclaims, "It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy." This is followed by a series of fast-paced arhythmic claps. You can get a feel for it here. As I kid I never really stopped to wonder what the profound "it" of this song was really about. On some level, I think I thought it referred to being Jewish. As a grown up, I have come to understand that this kitschy song is in fact a translation of a line from Proverbs (3:18) speaking poetically about Torah. This piece of liturgy is sung in Jewish communities around the world, across every denomination, as we close the ark at the end of the Torah service.
This song has come back to me this week, as we find ourselves steeped in Torah and tree imagery. This week marks both the holiday of Tu B'svhat and parashat Yitro, in which we read the story of the Israelites receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. For the rabbis, there is no limit to their metaphorical relationship to Torah. Torah is fire and water; it is a prism and a multi-faceted jewel; it is a graceful gazelle and a nursing breast. But perhaps most famously, Torah is a tree of life, eitz hayyim hi. And we call upon this particular metaphor every time we read from the Torah itself.
This week, even more than trees, I have been studying the wisdom of forests, which are essentially cooperative communities of trees. In his incredible book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben explains:
"In such a cooperative system, it is not possible for the trees to grow too close to each other. Huddling together is desirable and the trunks are often spaced no more than three feet apart... If you 'help' individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send out messages to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own... This is because a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it...
"'But isn't that how evolution works?' you ask. 'The survival of the fittest?' Trees would just shake their heads - or rather their crowns. Their well being depends on their community..." (26-27).
So too with us.
Like trees in a forest, the closer we grow together, the more we are able to sustain and protect each other amidst the changing weather patterns over which we otherwise have no control.
Wohlleben concludes, "'A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.' Because trees know this intuitively, they do not hesitate to help each other out."
Which is why the rabbis count, among the things that have no limit in this lifetime, gemilut hasadim, acts of generosity and kindness. Hesed is our mycelium, our fiber-optic underground web of connection.
עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃
She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her - me'ushar - has the capacity to thrive.
As we prepare to receive the Torah that is uniquely and collectively ours, may we remember to hold fast not only to its teachings, but to each other. It is through community that we have the capacity to thrive.
Rabbi Ari Lev
You can search Rabbi Ari Lev's blog below:
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.