Earth Etude for Elul 12: In the Shadow of the Rabbi’s Tree
by Hody Nemes
~ I spend my days entombed in a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. I am writing these words in an eight-story apartment building.
As the world urbanizes, and as the urban sprawls further afield, we spend our lives increasingly surrounded by the human-made – brilliant engineering, beautiful cityscapes, wonderful in their own way, yet sometimes painfully lacking. A wonderful other sort of beauty, the emergent beauty of ecosystems — of field, forest, coral reef — is increasingly harder to find.
Thanks to climate change and other massive societal failings, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction to afflict our earth. In the lifetime of a child born today, as many as half of all animal and plant species will go extinct thanks to climate change.
Numbed by urban life, overwhelmed by imminent destruction, how are we to retain our wonder, and our gratitude for that which still grows beside us today?
Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) made an infamous declaration:
“Someone who is walking along studying [Torah]…and interrupts to say ‘How beautiful is that tree,” or “that plowed field!’, Scripture regards him as though he has forfeited his soul.” (Pirkei Avot 3:7)
Many readers struggle to accept the plain reading of the verse – that it is a sin to pause Torah study to praise G-d’s creations. It can’t be!
Some reinterpret the meaning; they see Rashbi rejecting the view that expressing wonder as an interruption from studying Torah – perhaps praising a beautiful tree is itself Torah!
Yet the plain reading fits. Rashbi is most famous for fleeing to a cave under threat of death from the Romans for teaching Torah. He spends years in the cave (nourished – ironically – by a miraculous carob tree), then vaporizes everything in sight when he briefly exits it. A Jew’s time should be spent studying, and praising a tree or field is an unholy distraction. This is an undeniable thread of our tradition.
I knew a man who inherited Rashbi’s devotion to Torah. The rabbi of my childhood in Missouri, Rabbi Abraham Magence z”l, was a graduate of Grodno Yeshiva, who studied with one of the great Talmudic scholars of the twentieth century, Rabbi Shimon Shkop z”l. So dedicated was he to Torah study that Magence continued teaching even in the darkness of Stalinist Russia during WWII, in defiance of a Soviet ban. His bravery landed him in a torture chamber and nearly led to his murder by the KGB.
I knew the stories about Rabbi Magence, and I revered this loving man who danced around the edges of my early life. Once was I given a glimpse of his greatness up close, a greatness that set him apart from the zealous sage of old – one cloudy Shabbat, as my brother and I accompanied him down the sidewalk.
Without warning, he stopped walking. “Mein Gott!” he cried, in his thick Polish accent. “Such a beautiful tree!” He remained immobile, reverence on his face. A large, unremarkable bush stood beside us – one I would have paid no mind. But as I looked more closely, I saw that it shimmered with raindrops. Perhaps it did possess a latent beauty. Years of Torah study, punctuated by suffering, had not dimmed his eyes nor lessened his capacity for wonder.
Rabbi Magence was walking in the shoes of another teacher: Moshe. Upon seeing a strange bush, he, too, stopped in his tracks. “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight!” he said, with the determination of a proto-scientist and the wonder of a prophet (Exodus 3:3).
Yom Kippur is approaching. The Day of Atonement is an indoor holiday, a holiday of buildings – when we gather inside synagogues at the hour that Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies.
Yet it is precisely at this hour when we must go outside, to explore the inner chambers of our heart in a different sort of way than we do indoors, to find our own burning bush in the backyard.
On Yom Kippur afternoon – shortly before we read about Jonah, and the kikayon plant that provided him blessed shade – I step outside to seek my burning bush, my kikayon. I have a custom of lying down beneath a particularly massive tree – the same one each year — and reaching out to G-d to review the year past.
As I do so, I marvel at the way the tree’s leaves rustle in the wind, its branches sway, but its trunk remains straight and unbowed — and wished that I had the tree’s resilience during the gales of the coming year, already brewing. Sitting in the tree’s gentle shade, I marvel, and I daven; I reflect on my shortcomings, and I enjoy the quiet shade and sparkling of the leaves.
I’m not the only one. Two thousand years ago, Rashbi, too, rejoiced in the quiet shade of trees. Jeremy Benstein unearthed a passage in the Zohar that has overturned my shallow understanding of Rashbi’s worldview:
Rabbi Shimon [and his colleagues] were sitting under the trees in the valley of the Sea of Ginnosar (Kinneret). R. Shimon said, “How pleasant is the shade spread over us by these trees! We must crown them with words of Torah” (Zohar, 2:127a).
Rashbi had the Moses and the Magence in him too. If a man as divorced from the world as he contained such wonder and such contradiction, surely we do too.
This Yom Kippur, try lying down beneath the tree, particularly if you are struggling to feel strong emotions during the service…and recite the words of Moses, Rabbi Magence, and Rashbi.
Begin with wonder. Start with a tree.