Ki HaAdam Etz Ha’Sadeh – human beings and trees, or “none of us thrive uprooted”

In the book of Deuteronomy in a passage describing the rules for besieging a city we find a curious phrase: “When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, those you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with thee, until it fall.” (20:19-20)

It begins with the prohibition against destroying trees, and clarifies that the trees to be protected are those that bear edible produce, but within the arc we find the phrase “ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” and this has always been a verse that has resonated for me far beyond the rules prohibiting scorched earth policies in war. It can be read either as a question or as a statement of truth, either “Are trees of the field [like] human beings?” or “Human beings are [like] trees of the field”

Trees are everywhere in bible, sometimes for good, sometimes less so. Abraham enters the land from Haran via Shechem and arrives at Elon Moreh (the terebinth (oak) tree of Moreh, he  is encamped under the terebinth of Mamre when God comes to him to tell him Isaac will be born, Deborah the nurse of Rebecca is buried under a terebinth tree,   Jacob buries the household idols of Laban under a terebinth, Deborah sits and judges under a palm tree, David fights Goliath in the valley of the Elah (terebinth), Hosea describes idolaters as worshiping at various trees – “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and offer upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow thereof is good;

The Israelite religion valued trees but had an uneasy relationship with them insofar as the hated and dominant Canaanite tradition was one of tree worship. The mother goddess Asherah was associated with sacred trees,  Asherah/Asherim  are  described more than thirty times in the biblical narrative as being a cult centred on a pole or stylised tree, or else a sacred grove of trees. It was to be feared and to be rooted out.

And then of course there are famous trees right at the beginning of the biblical narrative – those planted in the Garden of Eden, not only those whose fruit could be eaten, but more particularly the two from which nothing must be taken – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life. The trees with which our ambivalence begins.

While the sacred trees of the Asherah/Asherim have been uprooted from the traditions of the biblical Israelite people, we have taken the tree for ourselves –  big time. The candelabrum in the desert tent which transferred to the Temple is modelled on a tree, and botanical terms are used. That candelabrum remains the most ancient symbol of Judaism.  We are used to Torah being described as Etz Hayim, a Tree of Life.  Trees are used in parables and as analogies. Look at Jotham’s use of them to describe the choice of Abimelech as king (Judges 9) or Ezekiel’s use of the cedar and the trees of the field to symbolise Israel and the other nations.  Look at the psalmist who describes the righteous person as like a tree planted by the waters. Wherever you look in bible you can find trees.

So this phrase “Ki Ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” fits into a long and rich tradition and certainly is the subject of a great deal of halachic and aggadic attention and interpretation.

Its plain meanings – the rhetorical question asking whether a tree should pay the price for human greed or stupidity, and the idea that human beings are comparable to trees of the field are both explored, and while for many years I have focused on this as a question which underlies the importance of preserving the fruit trees rather than weaponising them or wasting them in war, this year I found myself niggled into a slightly different direction.

Human beings are [like] trees of the field.

In what way are we like the trees of the field? I think because we put down roots and we reach to the stars. Our roots are hidden away, a complex network of sustaining relationships, anchoring us, holding us to our history, giving us the wherewithal to grow. Our bodies grow, we become a presence in the world that can be fruitful and filled with life. We yearn ever upwards, yet in so doing we can offer shade, shelter, fruit, support to each other. We respond to our environment and we shape our environment.

In the wonderful book “The hidden life of trees” the author Peter Wohlleben writes ““When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbours in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.”

No tree provides everything we need, just as no one person or relationship can provide everything in life:  diversity is important for us. And trees are rarely naturally isolated, even in the biblical desert they generally grow and thrive in groups.  Like trees, we are relational beings, we need each other, we need community.

As the news every day seems to bring yet more stories of those who have been uprooted from their communities because of war and its attendant problems of violence, terror, starvation and chaos, I see how the verse comes alive. Trees are innocent bystanders in war and must be protected. They are the resource from which new society may grow, and to uproot them or damage them may destroy the potential future. As refugees flee into hopeful sanctuary, we know that they are leaving behind a barren landscape where life cannot continue. As refugees enter a new country they bring with them all the possibilities of regeneration, even where despair and terror appears  to have caused irreparable harm – still the hopeful green shoots appear from what looks like the dead stump. People who have been uprooted have lost much more than material possessions – they lose part of their history and much of their future. Their present feels fragile and vulnerable – will they be supported, will they be able to create networks and become part of community, will they be able once more to grow.

As I look at the news stories my heart breaks. Young children alone and scared in Europe, sent by parents desperate to give them a chance at life. Whole families or lone individuals trying to reach safety in rickety boats on treacherous seas.  Victims of trafficking who cannot understand the system which is trying to keep them out. Victims of violence who survive as an act of will. Everyone cut off at the roots, anxiously trying to regrow, to find some shelter and space and sustenance. No one uproots themselves willingly – it is always a final act of desperation.

At Tu b’shevat we celebrate the trees of our land. We plant more, we clear round others so they can reach the light, we mark the new year of life. And this is good, but as the bible reminds us human beings also need what trees need. And so we must find the space for those fleeing the war in their own land to put down roots in ours, help to create the networks of relationships that will support them, give them the wherewithal to flourish. If we protect a material tree from the trauma of war surrounding it, how much more should we be protecting the human being, part of our own family tree, from such trauma.?

 

 

 

 

 

Parashat Beshallach Shabbat Shira

This week we will be reading Parashat Beshallach, which is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of song, because it contains within it the song sung by the grateful survivors of the escape from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Parashat Beshallach always coincides with the week we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees, a time when traditionally we understand that the trees are beginning to awake from the dormancy of winter and their sap begins to rise.  As we celebrate this minor festival which was originally a cut-off date for tax purposes, we become more aware of the nature that is around us and that we often forget to notice in the busyness of our lives. There are a number of customs that have grown up around this date. Planting trees, eating the fruits specific to the land of Israel, grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates, and some say a carob or etrog too. There is a Kabbalistic custom to eat 15 different varieties of fruit on the fifteenth of Shevat – a sort of inflated “five a day”. There is also a Kabbalistic custom of having a Seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning and ten different fruits and four cups of wine would be consumed in order to help complete the creation of the world. I have always liked the idea of eating and drinking being a good way to perfect our world !

But there is another custom that is very old and is connected with this weekend, specifically with Shabbat Shira, and that is to feed the birds.  This week we read of the despair that followed the elation after the people had crossed over the Reed Sea and the Egyptians were no longer pursuing them. They are hungry and thirsty. The water they find is bitter and unsuitable for drinking. There is little food for them to eat. They begin to moan and complain “The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness, and they said to them : “If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread. For you (Moses and Aaron) have brought us into this wilderness in order to starve the whole assembly to death” (Exodus 16:2-3). What followed of course is the appearance of Manna and of quail for them to eat: “God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion — that I may test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. But on the sixth day, when they prepare what they have brought in, it shall prove to be twice the amount they gather daily.” …and In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” — for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “That is the bread which God has given you to eat. This is what God has commanded: Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in his tent.” Exodus 16: selected from v4-v 16)

But we are told in the midrash that on the first Shabbat after the people had been collecting the manna, they went out on to try to collect some on that day too – even though they had been given twice the amount the previous day in order not to have go collect on Shabbat. And Rashi tells us that there were people who went even further in their wicked behaviour – these people not only went out to collect on Shabbat, but had previously scattered some of their extra manna around the camp in order for people to find it and to mistrust Moses and what he said God was saying. But, says the Midrash, birds came early in the morning and they ate up all the scattered manna in order to protect the reputations of both Moses and God, and no manna was found when the people came looking on Shabbat.  Because of this extraordinary kindness, our tradition is to feed the birds this Shabbat especially to thank them.

There is a second reason often cited for our custom of feeding the birds on this Shabbat particularly, and that is to do with the name of the sidra – Shira. God having rescued us from the pursuing Egyptians is praised in song, but singing is the special skill of birds so there is a mystical tradition that we must repay them for appropriating their particular worship style. Hence, we feed them.

Now I don’t really think that either of these stories have much grounding in reality, but I do notice that while Spring is marked with the onset of Tu B’Shvat, so often there is a turn for the worse in the weather, and that the birds, having survived many weeks of poor weather and poor hunting already, could do with a little help, and for that reason it seems to me to be a good thing to do – to spread a little birdseed or hang a few fat-balls and feel ourselves to be doing our bit for keeping the bird populations going.  The stories tell us that we are paying the birds back for their acts of kindness, but while that is an important lesson to learn, so is the lesson of caring for our world simply because it is our world, because we are co-creators with God in this world, because it is our responsibility to keep it going and to look after it. Our tradition also tells the story that when God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! Take care not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Midrash Rabbah, Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:13)