9/7 Reform Service Sermon
By Monica Sager
When I think of trees, I think of the book “The Giving Tree.” The Shel Silverstein book follows the lives of an apple tree and a boy who grow together. The tree is very giving, helping the boy from when he is a child to a teenager to a man to an elderly adult. The tree keeps loving and keeps providing throughout.
This, for me, is a representation of the selfless generosity trees have. What does that mean though? We don’t typically think of trees as being generous, just people. This book followed the journey between the boy and the tree. The tree loved the little boy, which was the opening statement of the short story. The tree gives all that it can and gives it selflessly. It gives until there is no more to give.
The new year is a time to reflect on the previous year and decide how we can each improve for the upcoming year. It’s the perfect occasion to think of the “cycle of life” and what that means to us and people as well as Jews.
A perfect example of this is trees. Trees, first of all are important to the world. Literally, they give us the air we breathe. This raises the idea of sustainability. First, we’ll get a little scientific and then go into the symbolisms and meanings of trees. Light from the sun gives trees energy to convert CO2 and water into sugars and oxygens. Plants do this as well, but trees produce a lot more. The sugars contain carbon from the photosynthesis and go through the inner bark of the trunk. Much of the carbon stored by the tree goes into the soil. The roots grow by using the sugars. The tree needs to use some of the sugars and oxygen to survive as well. It is this whole cycle. Trees are almost their own living island. They create an ecosystem and add to the greater one as well.
Trees have a connection to Judaism as well. The Tree of Life, or Eitz Chaim, is used to describe the Torah itself. The five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) make up the Jewish story. The Torah is also “the law” for Jews. It’s the commandments and interpretations that regulate life. We read the Torah each year, repeating it over and over, symbolizing the cycle of life represented by trees.
Trees are in the Midrash. In Kohelet Rabbah, it is taught that “When G-d created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world—for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” The trees in the Garden of Eden are singled out. It is expressed in Midrash Sifrei that the phrase “’because aman is a tree of the field’ teaches that the life of man is from the tree.” Other philosophers agree and add that the “life of man and his food is [from] a tree of the field…and it is not the way of a wise and understanding nation to needlessly destroy something so worthy and therefore you should not cut down a tree of the field, rather you should protect it from destruction and damage, and take benefit from it.”
This idea plays out into art work and teachings. At the synagogue my family went to while I was growing up, there was a “Tree of Life” metal creation on the wall as soon as you walk in. There are names of people born, people who died, people who celebrated milestones. And they are all connected. I am connected in that tree to my mother and father, who are attached to our other family members, who link to our family friends and the rest of the congregation. We become one with this symbolization. The tree is the life of all of us.
Trees are also growth for Israel. There are multiple organizations that plant trees in Israel to “celebrate a life cycle.” It’s a mitzvah to do Yishuv ha’aretz, or settle in the land of Israel. This requires the development of the natural world for our needs, sustainability, and livelihoods. A commentator to the Shulhan Arukh, said “That which is more permanent on the land better fulfills [the mitzvah of] yishuv ha’aretz. Houses are more permanent than crops, and trees are more permanent and rooted in the land than houses.”
So where do we go from this? We can’t all just go buy trees or plant them in Israel, right? That’s not practical. I’ve mentioned before this idea of sustainability. A simple definition of that word is to not use a resource to the point that it has a negative consequence on future generation’s ability to use that same resource. It means proper selection, proper care, thoughtful use. So I encourage you all to go out and think about what you’re doing. Be conscious of your choices and how they affect the world around you. You could even make that your resolution this new year! Chag same’ach.