Of men and trees
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Jerusalem Post International Edition
February 9, 2001
What to do? These words are being written prior to the Israeli election before we even know for sure who the candidates will be, and yet will be read after the elections. Thus spared the need to make predictions or to distinguish myself from hundreds of other commentators giving their post-mortems, I’m freed to focus on Judaism’s timeless verities.
Luckily for me, Tu B’Shevat, which marks the ``new year" for tithing fruit trees falls this week. Not exactly a major Jewish holiday. Yet because of the custom of eating numerous fruits on Tu B’Shevat, the day is better known to many American Jews than the major festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, but lacks any fun activities for the kiddies.
Tu Be’Shevat provides an opportunity to consider our Sages insights on the connection between Man and fruit trees. Fruits are man’s soul food. In the original plan of Creation, fruit was the exclusive food for man. Every time a person eats of the fruit tree, says the Vilna Gaon, he absorbs a power that lies in potential within the fruit and is capable of being realized by man.
The Torah specifically tells us that there is a connection between man and a fruit tree, and it is this connection that makes fruits uniquely suited to sustain man. When laying siege to a city, we are forbidden to destroy the fruit trees surrounding the city: "Is the tree of the field a man that it should fall before you during a siege?" the Torah asks rhetorically. But the words were read by our Sages as a statement of fact as well: Man is like the fruit tree.
The Vilna Gaon explains the intrinsic connection between man and a fruit tree with a gematria: the numerical value of the Hebrew word for tree, eitz, is the same as that of tzellem, image. The fruit tree symbolizes that aspect of man in which he can be said to be "G-d like," to have been created in the Divine image. The Creator imbued Man with the power to himself be a creator, to be a partner with Hashem in creation, and it is that power of creativity, which is represented by the fruit tree.
Fruits bear a relation to the tree that produces them which is different from everything else produced by living plants or animals. Animals do not create anything new: rather they replicate themselves. Every cow is created ``according to its kind," not as a unique individual. The birth of a calf does not represent something truly new: it does no more than add to the total number of cows in the world. And in the vegetable world, new plants grow from seeds, which are transformed and disappear in the process of growth. The seed and that which come from it do not coexist. There is no creator together with its creation.
The fruit tree on the other hand, brings forth fruits that do not resemble the tree itself. The fruits and the tree remain distinct entities: one does not replicate the other. At the same time, the tree is not transformed to produce the fruit; the tree and the fruit coexist. The fruit vis-à-vis the tree thus appears as a creation from nothing. The tree is not depleted by the production of its fruits.
Man, too, produces fruits that are distinct from him and coexist with him. They, too, are a form of creation from nothing, as man is not depleted by the production of his "fruits". These "fruits" take two forms: a man’s offspring and his good deeds. Unlike the offspring of animals, a human being is not just one of a species: he is not interchangeable with any other person. Adam was created alone to teach us that each human being is a world unto himself; each person is born with his unique role in the Divine plan, which he alone can fulfill.
But even more central than the creation of offspring to a man’s role as a producer of "fruits" are his good deeds. The verse, "These are the generations of Noach- Noach was a righteous man" (Bereishis 6,9), teaches us, says Rashi, that the primary offspring of a righteous man are his own good deeds.
Most of us live our lives oblivious to the tremendous power G-d granted us when He created us in His image. We lead our lives as if we had no greater purpose than to move the furniture from one side of the room to the other.
On Tu Be’Shevat, as we eat of the fruits of the tree, we should reflect deeply on our great potential – nothing less than the ability to be a partner with G-d in the recreation of the perfect world destroyed by Adam’s sin.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Tu B'Shvat
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list