October 23, 2003
Roots of the Divine
Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
For all of you ecologists out there (and I believe every good Jew should be one), you know there's been a lot in the news lately about this new "Healthy Forests Initiative," which was introduced by our government to help thin overcrowded forests. The debate continues among different environmental groups as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But imagine, for a moment, a world without trees at all. Indeed, this could have been the fate of our world had God's original plan been realized. But I'm getting ahead of myself....
As the world was undergoing revolution and renaissance in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish world was undergoing the same. New ideologies, theologies and practices were introduced, many of which are still with us to this day.
Chasidism was one such movement. It emphasized that Judaism is something for every Jew, not just for the intellectual elite. One does not have to be a scholar to achieve Divine closeness. Instead, one's deeds and the joy that one expresses to the Creator are the most necessary ingredients for spiritual greatness.
Later, the Mussar movement arose among non-Chasidic Jews; it emphasized the need for self-development, introspection and a constant questioning of one's true motives and spiritual level.
While overlaps certainly exist between Chasidism and the Mussar movement, there are distinct differences. Chasidism emphasizes action and emotion -- introspection is only of secondary importance in one's Divine service. For the Mussarist, however, if one is not constantly examining himself to make sure his character is intact, every mitzvah runs the risk of being tainted.
In discussing creation, the Midrash attributes sentience to the various components of God's new world. When it came time for the trees to sprout forth from the earth, God had commanded that the trees be produced in such a way that the actual wood of each tree would be edible and taste just like their fruits. However, the earth chose not to obey God's command, and instead only produced trees with edible fruit, while the trees themselves remained hard and inedible.
What a bizarre Midrash. Obviously, there's a deeper lesson here. The Torah teaches that the earth not only sprouted forth trees -- it also sprouted forth man. It would seem, therefore, that whatever phenomenon manifested in trees would also have some parallel in the human experience.
The tree is an analogy to man. Extending the metaphor, man's roots, trunk and branches are just different components of his essence -- his personality, his character, everything that makes him uniquely that person. The fruit that one's tree bears is man's good deeds -- the "fruits" of his labor, the imprint of himself that he leaves in this world for others to share.
What is the problem with a tree having a good taste, like fruit? A person may be tempted to eat the tree itself before giving it the chance to bear fruit.
Similarly, a person who emphasizes his "tree" over his "fruit" -- his own character development over his actions -- may end up becoming so self-absorbed that he is no longer able to bear fruit and be a productive Divine servant.
This is why the earth did not want to have trees that tasted like fruit.
But there was a downside to this objective. If man only addresses his behavior and completely ignores his character, then he is in danger of developing into a diseased tree that can no longer bear the same quality fruit.
This is what happened when Adam sinned. He decided to degrade and corrupt his own "tree" by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. As a result, he could no longer produce the same kind of quality actions in this world.
That is why when Adam was cursed the land was also cursed. Just as now, Adam would manifest negative behavior together with his good deeds, so, too, would the land produce thorns and thistles together with its delicious produce.
And so the lesson in all of this is that one cannot be exclusively a Chasid, or his tree may wither. But nor can he be only a Mussarist, or he will consume his tree before it can properly bear fruit. Introspection and self-analysis are vital for one to be able to know oneself. But all my years of meditation and self-knowledge won't amount to a hill of beans if, at the end of the day, I haven't been a productive member of society and made this world a better place.
Let's hope that the "tree problem" is resolved soon. And let's remember how much there is to learn about ourselves from a tree.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.