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Tree of Life

 

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There is something mystical about trees. Where there are trees there is life, there is activity. Forests are places where magic occurs. They are laden with mysteries. Think of all the wonderful stories that take place in the woods. Think of the breath taking majesty of walking into Yosemite or Muir woods in California, and standing next to redwoods that remind us of how tiny and insignificant we are. The youngest trees express their ages in decades, others, like the great oak trees, in centuries. The ages of others, like the redwoods and sequoias, are measured in millennia. If you look at the grand oak tree in Thomasville, for example, you can imagine that it was there, growing, even before our country was created. Trees are a poignant combination of permanence and fragility. So many have existed far beyond our lifetime. Yet we can destroy them in a heartbeat.

Our relationship with trees does indeed say much about our relationship with the world – and Jewish literature confirms this. In Deuteronomy 20:19, Torah tells us that when besieging a city, one can eat of the fruit of trees, but the armies cannot cut them down. The destruction of trees represents the destruction of an existence far beyond ours; which can have devastating consequences. Midrash Kohelet Rabbah tells this story. After God created Adam and Eve, God took them around the Garden of Eden showing them all of the trees. God then said to them, “Behold My works, now beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, I did for your sake. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe, for if you destroy it, there will be no one to repair it after you.”   Trees are sustainers of life. If we destroy them, we choke off life.

We use trees to express many ideas metaphorically. “We cannot see the forest through the trees” means we cannot see the big picture because we are so focused on details. When we ask if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, did it really make a sound; we are posing the question about what is real and what is not. Here are some quotes about trees that range from funny to profound. Chris Maser wrote, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” Chad Sugg said, “Love the trees until their leaves fall off, then encourage them to try again next year.” FDR said, “Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” And finally, my favorite, by Jarod Kintz, “Love is like a forest, I think as I kill trees by squandering toilet paper while ‘decorating’ my ex girlfriend’s front yard.”

Maya Angelou, in her poem “When Great Trees Fall,” compares trees to human souls, and the falling of a great tree to the death of a beloved person. Indeed, some literature poses the idea that trees have souls. Far from being inanimate objects, trees are organisms with their own personalities. Shel Silverstein’s book, “The Giving Tree” is at once a sad but beautiful metaphor for how some of us only give while others merely take out of life. It is also a controversial book as some see the tree as a metaphor for the role of women being only to meet male demands, never questioning or caring about themselves. However you interpret Silverstein’s book, the tree is a source of life. That is how Judaism uses the metaphor of the tree – it symbolizes life, very specifically life through the words and teachings of Torah.

Which brings us to the window that now graces the front of our sanctuary. You will recognize the words across the top, Eitz chayim he lamachazikim ba, “It is a tree of life to those who cling to it.” We sing those words every time we place the Torah back into the ark, they are from Proverbs chapter 3. The creator of the window is the Master Craftsman studio from FSU, led by Ken von Roenn. Ken, along with Sarah Coakley, came to a Simchat Torah service 2 years ago and watched as we unrolled the Torah scroll around the sanctuary. We had already spoken with Ken about the metaphor of Torah as a “Tree of Life.” He was moved by the sight of so many of our congregants holding up the Torah as it stretched around the sanctuary. Thus Ken designed the image of the tree with a myriad of hands blended into the tree, symbolizing our congregation holding onto a tree of life. Chris Horne is the artist who carried out the design. Ken and Chris are with us tonight. The window had initially been dedicated by Len and Sandra Lichtenfeld, who have been members here and attending High Holiday services pretty much since I arrived here in 2001. So we cannot let this moment pass without thanking Len and Sandra for their generosity to our congregation.

The window was installed in July, and since then I have come into the sanctuary to stare at it numerous times. It is much more than a masterful work of art. And it symbolizes much more than the Simchat Torah service that inspired Ken to create this particular rendition of an Eitz Chayim. It spurred me to look into our traditional texts and explore the extent of meaning and symbolism of the concept of a “Tree of Life.” Why has that come to represent Torah? What does this tree, this particular representation of our hands holding onto a Tree of Life say to our congregation?

We learn from Genesis Rabbah (15:6) that the tree of life was planted in the middle of the Garden of Eden. It is important to note that its fruit was NOT forbidden to Adam and Eve. The only fruit forbidden to Adam and Eve was from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This causes Philo to wonder why they did not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Life, as opposed to eating fruit from the one granting knowledge of good and evil. This choice seems to represent a basic flaw in humanity – our failure to see things clearly, to overcome the choices that seem satisfying in the moment in lieu of those with long term benefit. Maimonides sees this choice as dooming humanity to an over focus on moral issues as opposed to matters of truth and fact. We now spend too much of our time wading through moral dilemmas instead of learning and understanding the real nature of God and the universe.

The Tree of Life, placed in the center of the Garden of Eden, reminds us of something about ourselves. We often overlook the powerful and the profound for the sake of immediate gratification. This costs us in untold measures. For it is also taught that the Tree of Life it is the basis for the world. Midrash says its branches extend over the whole world, covering the equivalent of a 500 year journey. Additionally, all primeval waters branched out from the streams feeding this tree. As opposed to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which grants something temporary, the Tree of Life provides that which is eternal, foundational. All of Judaism might then be understood as a human attempt to find our way back to the Tree of Life. We yearn to understand that which is eternal and life giving. It is our moral shortcomings, our tendency to pursue that which is pleasurable but fleeting that trips us up.

Why do we call Torah a Tree of Life? Torah is also seen as a foundational component of creation. In the Book of Proverbs, the quality of wisdom is interchangeable with Torah. The entire book stresses the need to acquire wisdom by studying Torah. A midrash on chapter 8 of Proverbs teaches that when God created the world, God needed a blueprint for creation, much like an architect needs a blueprint for a building. Torah was the blueprint God made to guide creation. This is not necessarily the same Torah we have in our ark, but a supernal Torah, of which ours is a mere refraction, a doorway into the supernal Torah of God. This is a significant idea on a number of levels. First, the Torah we know is less about physical specifics and more about moral law and justice. So God’s guiding Torah includes moral nature and ethics. Morality and justice are the eternal components of Torah, as opposed to any physical properties it describes. Maimonides however, would say that the most important aspects of God’s supernal Torah are science, mathematics, and philosophy; which he sees as the keys to the way the universe ticks. These foundational realities, of physics and of morality, are appropriately called a Tree of Life.

The rabbinic sages saw other ideas as well. In Ta’anit 7a, Rabbi Nachman ben Isaac says we call Torah a tree of life to teach that just as a small tree may set fire to a larger tree, so it is with scholars. Younger minds can sharpen the minds of their elders. Ergo the image of a tree reminds us to always create a knowledgeable next generation. In Baba Matzia we are taught that the works of the righteous are the fruit of the Tree of Life – which is Torah! Our deeds, when they are righteous, are the fruit produced by the tree of Torah. The Zohar takes a different approach. The Tree of Life (Torah) counters the influence of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Shechinah, God’s presence, is able to better enter this world, to be with us. The Tree of Life reduces the confusion caused by false gods. Lurianic Kabbalah depicts the Tree of Life as a progression of emanations from the Divine infinity called Ein Sof to our physical world. Each emanation, for example justice, mercy, strength – represents a manner in which we experience God. Each of these teachings, whether Talmudic or mystical, point to Torah as the center, eternal, anchoring presence in our lives.

Which now brings us to our window. I hope each of you will take time over the High Holidays to come up and study this wonderful work of art. For now, let me give a description. Unlike many artistic renderings of a Tree of Life, this one shows an elaborate root system. It is important to note that the exterior of the roots are different in texture than the trunk of the tree. They seem smooth and bare whereas the trunk is rough and textured. The top of the tree, what appears to be the leaves, is a gradation of shading from deep green to deep orange red. One can see 4 distinct colors, which reminds me of the 4 seasons of the year, and how a tree changes color as the leaves age and prepare to fall off. The most striking yet at the same time most subtle aspect is the hands – of different shapes, pointing in different directions. From a distance they are barely discernable, as their colors blend into the background of the tree. Yet they are absolutely distinct, for you can see they are layered onto the tree, not a flowing, smooth part of the tree.

As I said, Ken was inspired by the sight of many of our hands holding up a Torah scroll unrolled around the sanctuary during a Simchat Torah service. The hands in the tree represent all of our hands participating in a ceremony involving the Torah. As I study the window, I see much more. I see this window as a representation of the life and fiber of our congregation. Our Eitz Chayim is not only the Torah of Jewish tradition, it is the special Torah of our congregation.

Start with the roots. Our tree has a root system that is strong, complex, and deep. On one level that symbolizes the Judaism all Jews practice today. While every branch of Judaism is different, indeed every Jewish congregation is different, all Jews are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. We share the same past. The roots are bare, plain, as they show what is common to all of Jews. The Jewish roots are our history, highlighted by revelation in which we become the people chosen to receive Torah. All of us, whatever our personal practice of Judaism, descend from that common root. If I personalize the tree to Temple Israel, I see the roots as the dedication of the founding families, Blocks, Fleets, Gibbs, Mendelsons, Noveys, Rosenbergs, Turners – all of whom are still part of this congregation, some into the 4th generation. We are anchored in their work, their effort to create Jewish community in Tallahassee. We are strong because those roots are strong.

The trunk of our tree is rough, a different texture than the roots. This enables it to withstand the storms of history, to protect the heart of the tree. For Torah, the trunk is the generations of Torah scholars who study, reinterpret and make Torah relevant for a new generation of Jews. Our trunk is the generations of rabbis, especially Rabbi Garfein and his 35 years of service to Temple Israel, as well as the generations of lay leaders, including all the presidents whose names are on the plaques in the hall. These leaders, lay and professional, have guided this congregation through good times and bad.

The leaves are shown in gradations of four basic colors, green, yellow, orange, and red. If we see these colors representing the seasons of the year, then it symbolizes the cycle of reading and learning Torah, parashah by parashah, throughout the year. But I see an additional way to read the gradations of colors. Our sages teach there are 4 levels to studying Torah:

Peshat– this is the plain sense meaning of the words – the stories on their literal levels.

Remez – this is the hint of something more, the possibility of deeper meaning in the text.

D’rash – means “demand” or “explanation.” It is the push to find meaning beyond the simple and to apply that meaning to our lives.

Sod – the hidden or mystical meaning of the text. This is the deepest layer of interpretation, the result of the most intensive study.

We can appreciate Torah on any of these levels. The 4 beginning letters of the 4 levels are an acronym spelling pardeis, which means “paradise.” If we delve into all 4 levels of Torah learning, we have entered paradise.

Since the tree represents our congregation, the 4 shades of the leaves as well as the various gradations, represent the many ways our congregants experience and relate to our community. Whether you are a service goer, or a person who loves to learn, or someone committed to community service, or a seeker of community and a social life – or any combination of those – you are part of the tree. Wherever you fit in the fabric of the Temple Israel community, you are part of the tree. We are a better, more lush tree when you are here. We feel your absence when you are not.

The hands, well, they are meant to be our hands, in all of our variety. At first I thought of them as leaves, but then I realized that we are the fruits of the eitz chayim, the tree of life. Each of us, however different we might be, is a product of this tree of life. Each of us, whether we have been part of Temple Israel for a lifetime or a week, bears some influence, some impression from this tree. Yes, these hands are our hands, the fruit of the tree. Think about the array of things our hands hold as part of this tree: some hold siddurim (prayer books), some hold the fringes of a tallit in prayer. Some hold musical instruments that help to enable our prayers. Some hold books in study sessions. Some hold tools while putting up the giant menorah or building a temple project. Some hold hot dogs for kids and parents on Sundays. Some hold meat slicers, cutting our sandwiches for the festival and some create the baked goods for the festival. Some hands serve food at the shelter or deliver meals for meals on wheels. Some aid Alzheimer’s patients every Wednesday. Some hold the hands of little children some assist the elderly. All of our hands, I would hope, reach out to other hands, to welcome them to our tree.

Eitz chayim hi l’machazikim ba – It is a tree of life to those who cling to it. Those are the words in our window. Those words from Proverbs 3:18 grace the top of our window. You already know the rest of the verse, v’tomcheha m’ushar, and its supporters are made happy. It is then followed by Proverbs 3:17 – d’racheha darchei no’am v’chol n’tivotecha shalom, “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace.” May this new year of 5776, be a year in which each of us finds where we are in this tree of life we call Temple Israel, may our hands touch other hands, be it in the spirit of prayer, study, service or friendship. May all of our ways be pleasant ways, and may we all come to know peace.

Shanah tovah u’metukah.

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