Trees of Life, Root and Leaf


Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772/2011

By Rabbi Dawn Rose, PhD

Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley, Lowell, MA

            Last Spring I had the pleasure of walking through a New England forest with a flock of rabbis lead by naturalist Tom Wessels.  It was on that nature hike that my eyes were opened to the fundamental oneness between the trees of life, made of wood and with roots and leaves, and the Tree of Life, made of ink, parchment and wood, v’yesh omreem, and some would say, written with black fire on white fire, also, as we shall see, with roots and leaves.

I’ll begin my demonstration of this oneness with a quote from what is an entirely unorthodox spiritual text.  In the book, Ortho’s All About Trees, a basic, how-to book on landscaping, I found the following introduction to the purposes and effect of trees in our immediate environment:

“Trees have layers of meaning and of use.  Their impact on the landscape transcends their size and stature.  Trees root us in place with their continuity; they assure us that what has been before us will be here long after.  They bring communities together….  They mark the seasons of our year and are companions, lasting for lifetimes, generations, and millennia. (p. 4)

Reading this description, I was fascinated, for, just as trees have layers of meaning and of use, so also the Torah.  If I spend—if we spend—our entire lives exploring these layers we will have barely scratched the bark.  Its impact on the landscape of our lives and the life of our community also transcends its size and stature.  The Torah roots us in place with its continuity, assuring us that what has been before will be here long after.  It brings our communities together, marking the seasons of our year.  The Torah is our companion, lasting for lifetimes, generations, and millennia.

As far back as humans can remember, physical trees have given shape to our material, emotional, psychological, spiritual and mystical lives.  Trees offered our most ancient ancestors shelter, providing raw materials for food and fuel, homes and hunting and harvest.  In profound ways, the presence or absence trees, their species, health, and number fundamentally determined the kind of life early humans lived all around the world.  And from that ancient time, trees shaped the spiritual and religious lives as well, providing the site of pagan worship and the gateway to the religious imagination.  Here in New England we still find  circles of trees attributed to witches’ covens.  In ancient Greece, the birthplace of Western philosophy, Aristotle’s entire Ontology, or philosophy of all life, begins  with his observation of the humble acorn, presaging the discovery, millennia later, of DNA.

From the beginning, trees have shaped our exterior and interior lives.

For example, trees have shaped our psychological processes.  For all the comfort and shelter, food and raw materials trees offer, there is yet a yang to their yin, a yetzer ha-rah, a notion of evil.  Whether grove, forest, or jungle, at night trees gathered together have always been most terrifying, harboring evils both virulently real and flagrantly imagined

The Torah similarly shapes our light and dark, our notions of good, evil, as well as the ineffable.  It is the Torah which describes the most basic realities of our life on earth, day and night, darkness and light.  Land and sea.  Earth and Sky.  Humans and all other living beings.  And it is the Torah that initiates the rhythm that is ours to this day, week days followed by the end of the week and rest.  The six days of creation and Shabbat.

In the Torah, good and evil are played out in ways that forever invade our thoughts, arts, our dreams:  Jonah in the belly of the whale, Abraham and Sarah welcoming visitors, Joseph sold by his jealous brothers, Moses and Pharaoh locked in struggle.  The suffering of Job.  And too, in the Torah, is the roaring Mystery of God’s Self, experienced in love and in terror, in earthquake and tsunami, fire and flood, the stuff of our deepest fears in the flesh made spirit.

Because of the Torah, we Jews are intellectually and psychically bound with our kindred Jews around the world.  Each week, around the world, Jews read the next installment of our physical and mystical odyssey together.  Tomorrow’s reading, the Binding of Isaac is Judaism light and dark, day and night, welcoming boughs and gnarled branches in glory and in terror, both etched on our individual and collective psyches.

After the High Holy Days, ordained by the Torah, we will build our Sukkah as described in the Torah.  At the end of Sukkot, we will celebrate Simhat Torah, the joy of the Torah.  Together we will unroll the great scroll all the way around this room.  The ancient story of our people’s struggle to know God and find freedom will surround us.  Here will be the story of creation, a few inches later Adam and Eve, the Serpent the Fall.  Next to that the Tower of Babel, and one foot over from that from that the story of Noah and the Ark.  There will be the story of Moses in Egypt, from here to here the 40 years of wandering in the desert there to there.

The Torah both establishes a rhythm, the weekly portion read week after week, and interrupts a rhythm, the repetitive narrative of our daily life:  Rise, eat, work, play, eat, sleep.  Each and every week the Torah lifts us out of this score we play day after day and into an alternative universe, the heartbeat of the cosmos, where the focus becomes Big Questions to be considered in the context of enclosed stories enclosed within other stories.

The Torah is a sacred grove with tree lined corridors leading us out of what we think is life into what is greater life.  Like a single tree on the flat prairie landscape to which our eyes are drawn involuntarily, the Torah provides a place for our return, again and again, a guidepost to direct our way and gage our progress.

The Torah can be that vined branch grabbed as you are falling off a cliff.  It is a room where you can go that opens endlessly, like a forest, into other corridors rooms and points.

The Torah Tree of Life has been our alchemical instrument, transforming the ineffable Divine into stuff that can be absorbed into our hearts, minds, and world.  Once again, it will be through examining the physical tree that we will come to understand how uniquely this is true.  Together we will examine the  chemical miracle of photosynthesis.

As we all know, it is the leaves of the trees that house the miracle of photosynthesis.  As Jon Luoma explains in his book, The Hidden Forest,

“The wonder of photosynthesis begins in specialized structures… [called] chloroplasts which are like biochemical catcher’s mitts:  grabbing from a stream of radiation from the sun infinitesimal pulses of pure energy.  The job that these structures must accomplish is the keystone in the arch of the miracle of life:…  to bundle up pure and ephemeral solar radiation into a neat biochemical package, a molecule of food that can store energy for hours, days, weeks, years.  It is energy that will flow through the tree and even beyond, into the food webs of the great forest ecosystem.  (p. 73)

During what is called the light phase of photosynthesis, the chloroplasts capture an instant of light.  As in a camera, a photon is hurled into a molecule of chlorophyll, triggering a wildly powerful chain reaction that ultimately severs hydrogen from oxygen in a water molecule.  The freed oxygen snaps together into couplets and soars out into the atmosphere O2, the oxygen all life on earth requires to survive.

Then, the remaining hydrogen atoms enter a process known as ‘the dark phase.’  Propelled by enzymes in the chloplasts, it reacts to and joins with carbon dioxide flowing in to replace the fleeing oxygen.  The resulting compound is the basic food of plants as well as the delight of children and adults:  sugar.

So let’s take a moment to recap, now.  In a faction of a second, a microscopic chloroplast inside a simple green leaf has taken what appears entirely non-material and ephemeral—light—and from it created oxygen and formed sugar.

All life around the world depends on this process.

I propose that the Torah Tree of Life stages every instant a similar miracle; and, further, I believe that deep in the intellectual, spiritual and mystical heart of our Tradition, the process of Torah photosynthesis has always been known, the most ready evidence being the entire body of Jewish thought known as the Kabbalah.

The scientific question addressed by the theory of photosynthesis that of how light, which is both present and clearly ‘other,’ non-physical, immaterial—how does that light get morphed into everything that is so manifestly physical—wood, leaves, root, apples, avocadoes, birds, cows, and humans.  How is ephemeral sunlight made flesh?

This question is so very close to the question posed by the Kabbalah that I have to believe that our life on earth with trees influenced its framing:  The question of the Kabbalah is, if God made everything and God is totally Other, as Maimonides says, indescribable by way of any positive sentence humans can make.  If God is so different from all material life on earth, how did the material earth come from God?

And just as science teaches, the Kabbalah answers:  It’s all about light that gets broken up into shards, releasing creative energy vital to all living things, and storing up the rest like sugar to be found, savored, and lifted back up to God.  It should surprise no one that the Kabbalah is also called the Tree of Life.

I propose that the Torah, our Tree of Life housed here in this holy sanctuary and in our hearts, also engages in the holy alchemy of photosynthesis.

Here is how it works:  We have already discussed the absolute otherness of God, and the struggle in the Kabbalah to describe how a God who is so completely immaterial creates a material world.  The Torah addresses a similar dilemma.  How do human beings, made of flesh and blood, with limited senses and organic brains, come to know the unknowable God?  How do such finite beings as ourselves become intimate with the Infinite?

A primary way is the holy photosynthesis of the Torah.

Consider what the Torah is and how it came to be.

The Torah was written by ancient people who, much like ourselves, were beset by questions and overwhelmed by their lives in this universe.  Just as we do, though perhaps more, they experienced fleeting glimpses of the Divine flowing down and around them unceasing as sunlight.  Like the chloroplasts in leaves capturing shards of light, these early Jews received flashes of revelation.  As sudden lightening ripping the sky, or instantaneous snapshots, they perceived the first earth-shattering intimations of One God, One Creator, One Comforter, One Teacher, One Sovereign. One and Wholly Other.

These rushing insights generated chain reactions, splitting open fundamental concepts about gods and idols, humans and creation.

Impossible to communicate, unthinkable to contain, some of these flashes of revelation split and formed an IDEA necessary and comprehensible to humans, escaping into the atmosphere as a new Concept that would shape the political and spiritual life of half the globe for millennia.  The oxygen of our spiritual lives without which we would suffocate and die.

A flash of the Divine, made palatable to the mind.

One God.  The beginning of Judasim.

Then, like CO2 rushing in to replace the fleeing oxygen of ideas, humans responded to the IDEA and those responses, watered by tears of human longing, mixed with the glittering remainder of divine illumination and became stored in letters, words, and stories.  Like Sugar, it was Power, Energy made sweet to the tongue, to be used today and stored for ages.  The Torah is what became material of the entirely immaterial.  A flash of revelation, captured and stored like a lightning bug in a jar that wouldn’t die, but rather got passed from hand to delighted hand, glowing in the darkness.

But our analysis of the Trees of Life does not stop even here.  For there are more parts to a tree, and even more to the Torah.  For almost every kind of tree, there is a trunk, a strong if not mighty structure holding the leaves up to the light-filled sky, transporting downward created sugars while sending upward minerals and water absorbed through the roots.

Again I am reminded of the Kabbalah, which teaches that even as God’s goodness reigns down from on high, so also do our good actions, our mitzvot raise up to God, equally efficacious in opening the channels of blessing.  Like a tree trunk, our relationship with the Divine is a two-way street.

The Torah facilitates this process, bringing the letters, words, and stories down so that they can be read, spoken, chanted, learned, discussed, inculcated and circled back up to God as mitzvot of every size and kind.

Traveling downward to the very earth itself, we observe that the roots of any tree are marvelous things.  Of course roots anchor and hold in place.  As we saw earlier, they gather and transport water and minerals necessary to photosynthesis.  In a very real way, they hold the earth in place.

It is little known, however, that roots provide for communication and mutual support between trees as well.  Around any tree extends 30 feet or more of roots, touching and intertwining with other roots.  Researchers have found that it is through these points of intersection that trees communicate with one another.  If one tree is ill or not getting enough sunlight or minerals, other trees will respond by sending the necessary material through the roots.

Trees further apart are still connected underground by microscopic organisms that similarly transmit messages and materials.  Viewed in this light, a whole grove or forest may be understood as existing in cooperation, rather than competition.  This is where Darwin is proven wrong:  trees have not evolved into such towering and magnificent organisms that sustain all life on earth through competitive survival of the individual fittest, but rather through cooperative continuity and community.

For centuries we have read in the Talmud, “Torah is Divine Wisdom, a blueprint of the Divine Will.”

Today, Jews come to understand this phrase more fully.  Now we can say: “Trees are Divine Wisdom, a blueprint of the Divine Will.”

It is the Divine Will that we live by cooperation rather than competition, open to the needs of those around us and responding in kind.  It is the Divine Will that we offer up our works even as God showers us with blessings.  It is the Divine Will that the Divine not remain wholly and entirely Other but be constantly transformed, photosynthesized into material food and energy for all life on earth.

As an expression of our understanding that we humans must live cooperatively with trees, at tomorrow’s delicious Rosh Hashanah oneg, we will strive in every way possible, not to waste any part of any tree.  Come, partake, enjoy, and help wash dishes afterwards.  We have come to understand that not using paper plates but washing dishes to save a tree, is the highest of all spiritual practices.  We are taught this in the Tree of Life, our Torah.

The blueprint for Divine Will is all around us in the trees.  And it is in front of us in the Torah.  Etz Haimm Hee Lamaan Hazekim ba.  It is the Tree of Life for those who hold on to it.

 This New Year may we all reach toward the Divine palms open, transforming God’s light into much needed blessings.  The physical and the spiritual are One.  The life of the Torah is the life of the trees and Life on all the world depends on all these trees.Shana Tova

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