It looks like an ordinary tree, but it is far from anything ordinary. The tree grows flowers – bright, coral-pinkish flowers, sprouting with vigor. From those flowers, dainty and flawless, grows the pomegranate. I envy the half-flower, half-pomegranate stage. The flower is still a flower, and yet from its petals, comes a round shell, a small red fruit, budding, ready to see the sunlight. The baby half-pomegranate hangs from the flower, causing the petals a slight droop. The fruit is not yet ready to let go of its mother, its source, its essence, and so it hangs on, vacillating between two spirits, in this partial, unusual stage. The transformation is magical.
All from a tree, a flower! And then – a fruit! What else is so extraordinary complicated and yet so precisely born? In full ripeness, once the flower has melted away, merely a distant memory in the fruit’s existence, the pomegranate is refreshing. The seeds pop in your mouth, releasing their tart, tangy, biting juice. Setting antioxidants aside, it’s rejuvenating.
I had never seen a pomegranate tree before. I saw my first one a few months ago on Kibbutz Magal, a small kibbutz in northern Israel. The pomegranates had barely started growing, merely mini-fruits springing from their buds. And it got me thinking. We are all like the pomegranate – growing, blooming, molding into something new. Yet sometimes we grow so much, into big, luscious, deep red pomegranates, that no one remembers where we came from, that we were once exquisite little flowers, dazzling vivd pink, our petals flimsy and fragile, not at all like our current solid, ruby shell.
I had never known how a pomegranate grows, but since my first sight of the half-flower, half-pomegranate a few months ago, I have a new awareness of the fruit. I appreciate the pomegranate that much more, in all its beauty and mystery, its enigmatic growth and wonder. Since then, when I go to the shuk in Jerusalem and buy a cup of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, I cannot help but think of the maturing pomegranate, imagine it tearing through the budding little flower…
We should all take the time to inquire where each other come from – our friends, roommates, family members, teachers, coworkers, neighbors, our strangers. The present state of being in which we interact with our peers is only a piece or two of the puzzle. Knowing the tree, the blossom, the flower, gives us a much more comprehensive picture, allowing us to understand the other more profoundly, with more richness and intricacy.
In fact, Judaism, in its spiritual nature, holds a unique and insightful appreciation of understanding the other. Take, for example, one of my favorite twentieth century Jewish philosophers, Martin Buber, whose writings on Jewish and general, secular philosophy were deeply intertwined. Buber provides a model for accessing the other by distinguishing between two types of relationships. The first is when we encounter the other as an “it,” and in these “I-It” relationships we dismiss the other as an entire being, as a whole person and rather relate to the other as a member of a category, as an instrument of achievement. We must strive, instead, for Buber’s second understanding of relating to the other, the “I-Thou” relationship, in which exchanges are built upon mutual existence with the other, listening genuinely to the other and avoiding the imposition of our own ideas on the other. Buber arrives at this conclusion from a spiritual foundation, defined by the oneness, the wholeness of God, which can be experienced through relationships: “The purpose of relation is the relation itself–touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by a breath of eternal life” (I and Thou).
A deep knowing of the other was necessary to Emmanuel Levinas as well, one of the most prominent European Jewish intellectuals in the second half of the 20th century. Levinas went even further in asserting the importance of the other over the importance of oneself in that one owes more to the other than to oneself: “There is a Jewish proverb which says that ‘the other’s material needs are my spiritual needs.’”
In Buber’s Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis, he states: “There is a purpose to creation; there is a purpose to the human race…our purpose is the great upbuilding of peace.” Holding Buber’s proposition to be true, that man was indeed created for a purpose and that purpose is the emergence, improvement, and continuation of a peace that is wholesome, all-encompassing, and durable, we all know that humanity is far from fulfillment. However, conceivably, a world built on thousands of one-on-one understanding relationships with the other will generate a stronger and healthier world overall and bring us closer to fulfilling this looming task of “world peace.”
I admit that it is almost inconceivable to the human mind today that such a wholesome peace could ever materialize. But in a world all too often saddened by blind bigotry and haunted by baseless hate, it would be, at the very least, illuminating to commit ourselves to understanding the other. We must learn about and appreciate each other’s trees, each other’s flowers, and moreover, we must recognize that we don’t all come from the trees, or the same flowers. Hey, we may not even be the same fruit.