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12 Shevat 5763 - January 15, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Tu Bishvat: Man as a Tree

by HaRav Arye Leib Shapira

Part III

In the first part, HaRav Shapira quoted the Chidushei HaRim and others who say that the essence of Tu Bishvat is chidushei Torah. They also note that the trees grow on Tu Bishvat based on the rain that falls earlier. The Maharal says that the cycle of crops that is referred to in the Regolim of the year parallels the cycle of man's development, from the beginning at Pesach to the final ingathering on Succos. Why this parallel? Because Hashem wants to tell us that all the material world has a spiritual parallel; when we are showered with rain down here, there is a corresponding spiritual blessing being showered upon us Above. That also underlies the entire expression of the Torah which is written referring to material blessings but alluding to the parallel spiritual blessings.

The second part carried this further and noted that there are four characteristics definitive of a tree: 1] Its roots always absorb [nutrition from the ground] even if it does not grow any fruit. 2] It grows tall. 3] It provides its surroundings with shade. 4] Its branches may be replanted in the ground. In the second part, HaRav Shapira explained how the first two characteristics have their parallel in man: 1] He must always retain his connection to his spiritual roots, and 2] "We must use deeply entrenched roots in order to cultivate pride, but any intelligent person understands that a person's pride is only a means for submitting himself to the Creator by being humble at heart."

Your Shadow is Pleasant

Let us now move on to the third quality: "Your shadow is pleasant." The gemora in Eruvin (43b) says, "If someone wishes to ascertain the height of a palm tree, let him measure his own height and the length of his shadow as well as that of the shadow of the tree, and he will thus ascertain the height of the palm tree." We see that the third quality is dependent on the second quality. The tree's powers of absorption are responsible for its great height and its great height creates a big shadow. The higher a tree, the larger is its shadow.

The pleasure derived from a shadow is different from other pleasures: with other pleasures the object giving pleasure is destroyed, such as a fruit, for example. But a shadow offers continuous pleasure, since it is not destroyed. A tree, which makes the most of its full powers of absorption until its treetop flourishes, can serve as a shelter for passersby.

A man's shadow also serves as an indication of his height. In parshas Shelach it says, "Do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us; their defense (`shadow') is removed from over them and Hashem is with us, do not fear them." The Ramban writes on this: "The posuk is hinting at the well-known phenomenon that on the night of Hoshanoh Rabboh the head of a person who will die during that year does not have a shadow. Therefore it says, `their shadow is removed from them.' "

A man's shadow is his reflection; his spiritual stature is reflected in his shadow. The greater the spiritual stature of a person, the more successful he is in overpowering the force of gravity and in absorbing from the roots, and the more does his fruit grow and his shadow accordingly. The more a person drinks from the wellsprings of Torah and expands his powers of absorption, the greater is his influence on his surroundings.

We find a wonderful explanation of this quality in the Beis Halevi on the posuk, "And Hashem saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt: for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth." The gemora says in Sanhedrin (108) that there was intermingling between the animals and in Bereishis Rabboh it says that all the animals became corrupt: The dog united with the fox and the chicken with the peacock. The Medrash implies that they did so of their own accord. What does this mean, seeing that animals are creatures that act on instinct and do not have any free choice?

The Beis Halevi explains as follows: "Just as man himself acts in accordance with his habits, his bad habits becoming like a second nature, creating a desire within him to repeat his previous acts . . . similarly do his acts have an effect on the whole world . . . Even if he sins in private by giving in to a desire, he strengthens the force of that desire until eventually it is implanted into the nature of all creatures and the world as a whole, to become more attracted to this vice than previously.

"Not only living beings but also inanimate objects acquire a new nature causing those who dwell in them to acquire a tendency towards the lust, as the posuk says, `And you will come and defile My country,' their deeds having defiled the country itself, for the nature of countries differ from each other, as the gemora says, `Ten measures of lust came down to the world, nine were taken by etc.' and other countries, too, have their own characteristics . . . Anyone coming into a new country which is full of a certain desire will physically feel himself more attracted to this desire than he was in a different country.

"It was the same in the Generation of the Flood. They increased their desire to unite with other species to such an extent that it became a natural part of them and also part of the animals' nature. The nature of the world became so corrupt until all flesh, including animals, had corrupted its way upon the earth."

Using this idea the Beis Halevi also explains the gemora in Yoma (86b), "Great is repentance, for on account of an individual who repents, the sins of the whole world are forgiven, as it says, `I will heal their backsliding (Hoshei'a 14:5).' " Someone who sins has caused the yetzer hora to become more powerful in the whole world and has thereby also caused others to sin. He therefore deserves some of the punishment meted out to others for their sins. When he rectifies his own sins by repenting for them, he still deserves to be punished for those sins of others which he was in part responsible for, since those who committed them did not repent. He is therefore forgiven for those sins, too, and he will not receive any punishment for those sins either. This is what is meant by, "I will heal their backsliding": My wrath has been removed from him and therefore he has also been healed from the backsliding of others. The basic point made by the Beis Halevi is already brought explicitly by the Mesillas Yeshorim in Chapter 1.

Elsewhere we explained the gemora in Taanis (8a): "In the time to come, all the animals will gather and ask the snake, `A lion tramples and eats, a wolf kills and eats, but you -- what pleasure do you get?' He replied to them, `He who speaks [loshon hora] has no advantage (Koheles 10:11).'" On the face of it, the snake is answering a question with an even bigger question but, based on the Beis Halevi, we can say that the snake answered as follows: "The nature of causing damage without deriving any pleasure from it is not something that I invented, I am only the result of the acts of man who spoke loshon hora."

A man's shadow refers to the immense influence of his acts, and their effect is felt without the object giving pleasure (that is, man) being destroyed. Man's acts create shade in the whole world, both for the good and chas vesholom for the bad.

Its Branches May Be Replanted In The Ground

We now come to the fourth and final characteristic, which rounds off and completes the good qualities of a tree. It is brought down in the name of the Rishonim that a characteristic feature of a tree is its ability to replant its branches in the ground in order to grow another tree. In other words, it possesses the powers of reproduction and continuity. The powers of absorption, which result in blossoming and growth upwards and in the formation of a shadow, also contain within them powers of reproduction. It is the same with man, who is compared to a tree. The main purpose of limud haTorah is to impart it to others.

Complete Wisdom: Teaching It To Others

The Meiri in Nedorim (55) says as follows: "One desirable quality of wisdom, and the highest one at that, is to impart it to others, and that is what makes it . . . endure amongst those who study it." This also makes it very clear why the characteristic of "easing a friend's burden" is one of the 48 means by which the Torah is acquired, for someone who has acquired Torah has to do his best to ease his fellow Jew's burden, his ol haTorah, by teaching him Torah.

"If you have learned much Torah, do not ascribe any merit (lit. do not keep the good) to yourself, because for that you were created." (Ovos 2:9). The Medrash Shmuel comments: "'If you have learned much Torah' and attained a lot, `do not keep the good', i.e. Torah `to yourself,' by not teaching it to others, rather disseminate your knowledge, and do not keep it to yourself, `because for that you were created,' and you are obliged to teach it to others."

A person sometimes thinks that the best thing for his spiritual progress is to have a chavrusa who is on the same level as he in learning. The Sefer Chassidim has the following to say about this topic (siman 946): "It is better to review halocho with people who do not know as much as you in order that they should not idle their time away, than to review it with your friends who are on a similar level to you, as Chazal said, `Whoever learns Torah with an am ho'oretz annuls evil decrees,' because this is similar to taking care of a meis mitzvoh who has no one to take care of his burial. Even though he loses something of his Torah, his Torah will still be preserved." (See also Tanna Devei Eliyohu, chapters 13 and 23).

Rabbeinu Avrohom, the son of the Rambam says in the Chapter On Benevolence: " 'And he planted a tamarisk tree (Bereishis 21:33).' " Chazal said that eshel is an abbreviation for `Eating, drinking and lodging.' One should not think that this generosity was restricted to providing food and lodgings which is the lowest form of benevolence, but he was also generous with his wisdom, religion, influence, and money. He was generous in giving of his wisdom in that he taught people about the Oneness of Hashem and about His ways . . . the qualities of benevolence and liberality with material goods demonstrate a person's trust in Hashem that He will repay him . . . and generosity in spiritual matters shows that he has perfect faith that Hashem will preserve his spirituality and not detract from it because of [the time spent] teaching it, but on the contrary He will add to it . . ."

We see that the most perfect type of chesed is spiritual chesed, material chesed being "the lowest form of benevolence."

Man, who is compared to a tree, has the potential and the duty to share the spiritual abilities he derives from the Torah with his fellow man: this is his whole spiritual purpose in life.


We have now seen that man has all the four characteristics we find in a tree. The fact that the Torah compares man to a tree means that we must learn from a tree about our obligations: absorbing sustenance from the roots against the force of gravity, having a proud bearing and being humble at the same time, forming a shadow for those who need it, and transferring the sustenance absorbed to others. All these possibilities are latent inside man's soul, just as they are part and parcel of the nature of every tree. Only man is different in that he has free choice and is able to utilize those possibilities to their fullest extent.

Therefore on Tu Bishvat, the period when absorption first takes place from both the physical and spiritual waters of the new year (as we explained at the beginning), man must utilize this ability to absorb from the rains of the new year by creating new Torah offshoots and fruits. As the Chidushei Harim says, "On Tu Bishvat a person is presented with all the chidushei Torah which he will make during the year."

"O Tree With What Shall I Bless You?"

This insight into the nature of a tree also provides us with a new understanding of the following gemora (Taanis 5b): "When they [Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzchok] were about to part, [Rav Nachman] said, `Bless me, my master'. He replied: "Let me tell you a parable. This may be compared to a man who was walking in the desert; he was hungry, weary, and thirsty and he lighted upon a tree the fruits of which were sweet, its shade pleasant, and a stream of water flowing beneath it. He ate of its fruits, drank of the water, and rested in its shade. When he was about to continue his journey, he said `Tree, O Tree, with what shall I bless you? Shall I say to you, "May your fruits be sweet?" They are already sweet. "That your shade be pleasant?" It is already pleasant. "That a stream of water may flow beneath you?" A stream of water already flows beneath you. Therefore, [I say,] "May it be Hashem's will that all the shoots taken from you shall be like you." ' "

Considering the matter carefully, we discover that all the qualities of a tree discussed before are included in this blessing: `May your fruits be sweet' is a reference to its powers of absorption, `That your shade be pleasant' refers to its high stature and its shade, `That all the shoots taken from you shall be like you' refers to the specific blessing of the tree.

Why is the existence of a stream of water underneath the tree listed as one of the tree's characteristics together with its other qualities, and why does it say that he drank of its water? In what respect do the waters belong to the tree?

A tree's greatness consists in its being in proximity to a stream of water, as the gemora says in Kiddushin (32b), "A talmid chochom who toils in Torah, the Torah becomes his, as it says, `And he studies his Torah day and night,' after which it says, `And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that bring forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither.'" Rav Nachman was actually blessing Rav Yitzchok that he should be successful in utilizing his abilities to the utmost just like the tree.

Let us take to heart the novi's passionate call: "Everyone who is thirsty, come for water." Let us toil in the same labor as that required for a tree. As the gemora says (Succah 44b), "Aerating the soil [during the Shmittah year] is forbidden, but closing up the fissures is permitted." Let us seal the cracks and crevices and improve the trees. We will then be worthy of having sweet fruit, a pleasant shade, a stream of water flowing underneath and all our shoots resembling us.

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