Quality: "Man is as the Tree of the Field"
From the Written Law
"If you besiege a city for a long time, in order to conquer it, when you do so, you shall not cut down its trees, you shall not lift an ax against it, because you shall eat from it and you shall not fell it. For is man as the tree of the field, who can go away from you into a fortress? Only a tree whose fruits you know to be inedible, may you fell, in order to build fortifications against a city which conducts war against you."
Dvarim 20, 19-20
This quotation expresses the essence of the relationship of the Jewish people to trees and, in particular, to fruit-bearing trees. Even in the most extreme of situations - such as war or siege - it is necessary to distinguish between which trees may be felled and which may not. Any tree bearing edible fruit may on no account be cut down, the reason being, "for man is as the tree of the field", - in other words:
Human existence depends on trees and is linked to them. The Oral Law contains numerous explanations of this saying. It can be interpreted in two major manners:
- man's relationship to man is as his attitude to trees;
- the characteristics of trees should be a model for human behavior.
From the Oral Law:
1 - Interpretation of Man's Relationship to Man as Parallel to his Attitude to Trees:
"It was taught: a tree which throws away its fruit is smeared with scarlet paint and weighed down with stones..."
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat p.67
Our sages, basing themselves on the words, "Man is as the tree of the field", interpreted human relations in terms of their attitude to trees. When a person is sick, one prays; the person receives medication. In Tractate Shabbat, our sages indicate that a sick tree should be cared for and its welfare beseeched in prayer. The Talmud says: when a tree cannot retain its fruit and disperses them before they are ripe, two things must be done. Firstly, it must be painted in red; secondly, its branches must be weighed down with stones, to weaken it, because it is losing fruit from excessive weight. The Talmud asks in astonishment: for what reason is red paint used? - and the reply is: the paint is not a cure, but serves to inform everyone that the tree is sick, so that when they see it they will include it in their prayers.
2 - The Tree as a Model for Human Behavior
"Whoever has more wisdom than deeds is like a tree with many branches but few roots, and the wind shall tear him from the ground... Whoever has more deeds than wisdom is like a tree with more roots than branches, and no hurricane will uproot him from the spot."
Mishnah, Tractate Avot, Ch.3, Mishnah 17
It is possible to learn from how people behave to each other the manner in which one should relate to trees. It is also possible to use trees as a model for human behavior. A tree grows simultaneously in two directions: it pushes its roots further into the ground while producing fruit above.
What is it seeking above? Light: below it seeks water. A tree which can perform these two actions simultaneously is a tree of life and its life will be blessed. If man is as the tree of the field -- in the Kabbalah he is referred to as a "inverted tree", since he has roots and branches, but the roots are above and the branches below -- and if his roots and branches are strong, then he will live eternal life.
"I shall bring you an example of what this resembles. It is like a man, who wanders in the desert, weak with hunger, exhaustion and thirst, and finds a tree with sweet fruits and shady leaves, beneath which is a source of water. He eats the fruit, drinks the water and rests in the shade. When it comes time to leave, he thinks: "O, tree, how shall I thank you? If I say, "May your fruit be sweet" - they are already sweet; shall I say, "May your shade be beautiful?" - it is so; or, "May your roots find moisture?" - they already have it. So I shall say, "May everything which comes from you resemble you."
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit, p.5
In this parable, there are a number of details to note and explore:
- Whom does the tree symbolize?
- What does its fruit represent?
- What does its shade represent?
- What is symbolized by the water sources?
- Under what conditions did the man encounter this tree?
- Were the conditions described essential for this kind of meeting?
- Can you recall a similar encounter in your own life? Give an example.
- How did the man bless the tree?
- What is the significance of this blessing?
- Was this the best possible blessing for the man to pronounce at that point in time? If so, why?