Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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10 Shevat 5759 - Jan. 27, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
Man is Like a Tree: The Foundation and the Root

Various insights on the parallels between man and trees.

"The foundation of chassidus and the root of G-dly service . . . " begins the Mesilas Yeshorim. The attribute of chassidus, in that context, is a structure, and, therefore, requires a foundation, whereas `service' is a growth, and requires roots.

Service of Hashem is a process of growth in man, but it must begin from the root, for if there are no roots, there can be no thriving. Whatever a man sows inside his heart, will continue to wax throughout his lifetime. Avodas Hashem grows and develops in a process only when there is a root that can nurture this growth.

Along this line of thinking we can begin to understand the concept of growth and structure with regard to child rearing and to self improvement. If we wish a child to grow into a Torah scholar, a man who adheres to the mitzvos, we must sow within him the seed of Torah. This is what Chazal meant by, "As soon as a child begins talking, his father must teach him Torah and krias shema. What is meant by `Torah'? Says Rav Hamnuna, `Torah tzivo lonu Moshe' (Succah 42) (from Zeriya Uvinyon beChinuch p. 10 by HaRav Shlomo Wolbe).


"For man is like the tree of the field" (Devorim 20:19). Is then, man, really like a tree? Since it is written, "For from it shall you eat, yet you shall not chop it down," and it is also stated, "You shall destroy and chop it down," we are puzzled. [This comes to teach that] If a Torah scholar is upright, you shall `eat' from him and you shall not destroy, but if not, you shall destroy and uproot him (Taanis 7a).

Even if we cannot altogether fathom the words of the gemora, we can understand that the scholar referred to is a man in his prime, one who is producing fruit, in an environment of those willing to ingest. The analogy to a tree is apt. Why? Because producing fruit is an outgrowth of sowing, cultivation and growth. If he is decent, it is fitting that "You shall eat thereof and not destroy it."

Let us examine an additional source:

The gemora in Gittin (57a) tells of a custom prevalent in Beitar: when a male child was born, the parents planted a cedar, and when a daughter was born, they would plant a different kind of tree. When children got married, the respective parents would chop down their children's trees to form their wedding canopy.

This custom seems to express this selfsame idea. Children under the wedding canopy are at the brink of a new stage in life, having completed the stage preceding their marriage. This juncture is the time to utilize the plantings, the roots which, by the very virtue of their power of growth, were able to produce these adults from the infant boy and girl.

"For man is like the tree of the field..."

A celebrated principal of a talmud Torah in Bnei Brak which instructs in Yiddish was once asked of what benefit this extra language was to the beginners. Was it not too much of a strain to teach Chumash together with a foreign language? Superfluous, as well? The children were learning it by rote without even understanding the meaning of the words.

"True," he replied, "but this is what I was taught by Maran the Brisker Rov zt'l. He said that this method provides a special element of holiness since it is a transmission of the very manner in which generations upon generations of Jews were taught Torah at the inception of their education. This method, form and practice, in of itself, is a built-in boost for the children's future success in Torah study for the rest of their lives; it has a special segulah element to almost guarantee and safeguard their futures. This is the root of the cedarlike strength; planted in tender hearts, it will grow to stalwart strength.


The comparison between man and tree, as it is repeated throughout the Torah and teachings of Chazal in many forms, lends a common denominator to chinuch and Tu BeShevat, the Rosh Hashanah of trees. This date comes to draw the parallel between the growth of the tree and that of man, beginning from the time of planting and throughout the stages of development and growth, of itself and the production of its fruit, for itself and for the coming generations.

The first rule we learn from the tree is that every stage of development is a direct outgrowth of the stage preceding it, cause and effect. There is a clear and orderly process.

If we feast our eyes upon an orchard during the harvest time, we readily realize that these trees were first planted, then hoed, cultivated and tended steadily. No stage of development was skipped over. Rather, each one was a step following the previous one, and each previous one, a necessary and indicative step for the coming one.

When we see a Torah scholar, a devout and learned Jew, we realize that his achievement does not result from mere automatic heritage, a gift bequeathed by virtue of birth and ancestry. He attained his stature by toil, by molding his own character, stage by stage, growth upon growth, until he reached the level he acquired. He plowed, planted, fertilized, irrigated and cultivated the growth all along until he was able to produce those fruit.

Our awareness of this rule, of this fundament in avodas Hashem, obligates us to invest great efforts, thought, and caution in each stage of the growth process, in every action, since each step leads to the next, and each step is the forerunner of the growth of the next step. The care invested in one level will prepare the success of the next level, and so on. Each is like a root for the end product to come, on a stage-by-stage process, one preparing the way for the next stage, without skipping over anything.

Whatever one sows is what one reaps, even if it be a small deed. Sometimes, a single deed can become the root and cause for the growth of a fine tree, of which both trunk and fruits do credit to the investment. Alternately, a wild root left untended or allowed to spoil can produce bitter fruit.

The Alter of Kelm writes, "Before my window I see a planted vineyard, pleasing to the eye and tempting to the taste. Who produced it? The lowly earth! And yet I have seen the same earth produce briars and brambles or even harmful drugs. How can we explain this contradictory fact?

"The truth is that soil has the potential power to produce delectable fruit and also undesirable thorns. It all depends on the sower; if he sowed good seeds, he can hope to harvest good fruit. If not . . .

"So is it with man, who is compared to a tree. If man sows good thoughts and worthy hopes and aspirations, he will reap good will and positive fruit. One who sows animal-like desires will produce ambitions full of vanity, devoid of purpose and benefit. Man is like the soil; he will produce what is planted and nurtured within him.

"This is the meaning of, `He satisfies the will of each living thing.' (Tehillim 145) Every will, motive or goal that a person sows in himself is given chance to grow. Hashem will allow each person to choose whatever he wishes to produce. If we see that a person is greedy, covetous, rapacious, if he derives pleasure from evil or vain things, it is because he sowed those seeds himself and they were allowed to grow and develop. Conversely, one who sowed good in his heart, will reap a harvest of goodness and satisfaction in goodness.'

(Based on Chochmah Umussar, vol. II, Essay 40)

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