Earth Etude for Elul 26 – Returning to The Trees of Life
by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein~
I am a tree hugger. From long ago. I have planted trees, hundreds of them. I have celebrated Arbor Day as a Girl Scout. I have hiked in the woods from the time I was little.
There is a tree that grows in the center of the Merritt Parkway on the way into New York. I passed this tree every week on my way to rabbinical school. It is a beautiful tree with many strong, curved branches coming out of the central trunk. It looks like a menorah. There is another tree like that, a very old tree on the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, ME. Over a hundred years old. Having withstood wind and salt spray, hurricanes and curious tourists. Every time I pass them they make me smile. Photos do not capture their beauty. Perhaps you’ve noticed my two trees.
I worry about these two trees. The one of the Merritt we may lose to “road work” and improving the infrastructure. Other trees in the center are already tagged for removal. The one in Maine maybe lost to erosion.
For me, these two trees are touchstones. Trees that I return to again and again. They both look something like a menorah, a seven branched candelabra from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. They remind me of the beauty in the world and my place in it.
There was a third tree. A birch tree at Jolli Lodge in Leland, Michigan. It stood proudly above the shores of Lake Michigan on Good Harbor Bay as a sentinel. It had a tall trunk and one large branch that curved out of it. The Native Americans called that type of formation a “signal tree,” pointing the way. For me, for decades, every vacation would include the family picture by the old birch tree. We would measure our growing stature against it as a yardstick. Children climbed it. Sitting in an Adirondack chair, sipping a glass of white wine, books were read, sermons written, dreams dreamt with a breeze blowing through the leaves, dappled shadows on my pages. Sunsets, beautiful Lake Michigan sunsets were viewed (and photographed) through it. And we would pause. And think about our lives. Where had the year taken us? Where do we want to be next year when we stand under the tree?
And then the tree was gone. Felled by birch bore—and invasive disease caused by a beetle. The Jolli Lodge is not quite the same without that beautiful tree. I am not quite the same.
There is a special place in Judaism for trees. We celebrate trees on Tu B’shevat, the New Year of the Trees. We are commanded to not cut down fruit trees in the Book of Deuteronomy. We are promised that one day everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree and none will make us afraid in the Book of Isaiah. And we call the Torah, Eitz Chayim, a Tree of Life.
Why is the Torah called an Eitz Chayim? Proverbs tells us, and we sing it as part of the Torah service, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” We then sing “Hashiveinu” “Return to us and we shall return. Renew our days as of old….”
Return, “teshuvah” is a central theme of the High Holiday season. How do we do “teshuvah”? How do we return? How do we make amends? With G-d. With our friends? With ourselves? And even with the trees? Renewing our commitment to the trees, we renew ourselves. Then we can enter the High Holidays and fully sing Eitz Chayyim and Hashivenu, fully.
As we return this High Holiday season, I am glad that I was able to return to visit my two special trees. We need to continue to protect our trees so that we can share Isaiah’s vision of peace sitting under his vine and fig tree where none make us afraid. And then those trees can truly be called a Tree of Life.
Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, Illinois. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, www.theenergizerrabbi.org. Most Shabbat afternoons find her outdoors in nature, hiking, running or walking. She partners with many civic organizations to make the world a better place. She honed her love for the water at Mayyim Hayyim, the Community Mikveh in Newton, Massachusetts, where she served as a mikveh guide and educator. She received her rabbinic ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.