This week the Jewish calendar celebrates Tu B’Shevat (the New Year for Trees). This minor holiday has grown in popularity over the last few decades. People from all sections of Judaism celebrate it. Many hold Tu B’Shevat Seders and see it more as a environmentally friendly festival. It is clear that Judaism sees parallels between humans and trees. This is underlined by the verse in Deuteronomy (20:19) which states that a man is likened to a tree of the field. Within the parallel between humans and trees one can find tremendous wisdom how to deal with some of the existential challenges inherent in the human condition.
We humans are overly concerned with our existence. In common with all other living creatures, we don’t want to die. Unlike other living organisms, however, we have the ability to think abstractly and temporarily, and therefore know that like it or not, we are going to die. This fact, according to psychologists, fills us with fear and terror (Terror Management Theory). To alleviate the dread we find strategies to ensure that we live on in some manner.
For many, the strategy of choice is believing in an afterlife, that results from good deeds and positive behaviour in this life. The Talmud, however, using a metaphor of a tree, seems to offer an alternate strategy. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Isaac told his colleague, Rabbi Nahman, the following parable regarding a tree (Taanit 5b).
A man was traveling in the desert, hungry, weary and thirsty when he came upon a tree with sweet fruits, pleasant shade, and a stream of water flowing beneath it. The man ate fruits from the tree, drank water from the stream, and rested under its shade. Before continuing his journey, he turned to the tree and said: “Tree, O Tree, how should I bless you? Shall I say, ‘May your fruits be sweet’? They are sweet already. That your shade be pleasant? It is already pleasant. That a stream of water flow beneath you? A stream of water already flows beneath you. Rather I will bless you saying, ‘May it be God’s will that all the shoots taken from you be like similar to you.’”
Rabbi Isaac then turned to Rabbi Nahman and concluded the parable: “With what shall I bless you? With knowledge? You already possess knowledge. With riches? You are already wealthy. With children? You have children already. Instead I bless you in the following way, ‘May it be God’s will that your offspring be be similar to you.’”
The follows a line stated previously on the same page where the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yochanan said that Jacob the patriarch did not die (Taanit, 5b). To which another scholar immediately objects by asking does not the Bible itself say that Jacob was prepared for burial and was eulogized? The answer: since Jacob’s children are alive, he too is alive.
The theme is clear, the greatest blessing a person can be blessed with is having one’s children continue to live on and have a positive impact of the world for generations to come. The word “children” obviously implies the carriers of one’s DNA. Yet, children is also a metaphorical concept. Anything that one creates in this world and that has a lasting impact can be considered one’s next of kin. The Talmudic idea that one lives on through one’s children physical and metaphorical is powerful. Stanford Professor of Psychotherapy, Irvin Yalom, calls this rippling. It is impossible to go through life without having an impact, negative or positive, on those around us. To the extent that the positive impact our life has one the universe after we die, we continue to live on.
There is a huge difference between this approach to dealing with existential concerns, and an approach that suggests that through some other form of eschatological reality one becomes immortal. In the former, one is forced to value and make the most of every moment of the here and now, to ensure that they have a greater impact on humanity. In the latter approach, conversely, the concern is less about the impact those actions have on the here and now, and more on whether one’s life is lived in accordance with some kind of apriori model, according to which one qualifies for a place in a posthumus paradise.
Clearly, whether an afterlife exists or, as Epicurus maintains, life ceases to exist in its entirety at the point of death, is a matter of belief. It is not something that we have the ability to gather empirical evidence about. Yet, the strategy we use to deal with our existential angst has a huge impact on our behavior while we are alive. It has always puzzled me, for example, how one can encounter people who are simultaneously very religious and very ruthless. Doesn’t religion teach one to be kind to one’s fellow man? To be charitable? It occurs to me that this conundrum has to do with how the individual deals with their existential angst.
One who sees the ability to live on as contingent on getting into a post-life paradise will focus their life on ensuring that they meet the standards necessary to gain entry to their heaven. Thus, the concern is primarily selfish. It’s not about, how I can impact the world around me, but rather, is about how they can score eternal life.
Those, however, who deal with their existential angst as contingent on if the impact they’ve had on the universe is positive and enduring, are much more careful to ensure that all their actions are aligned with leaving a legacy that includes a positive and enduring impact on their fellow human beings. In other words, they are concerned with recreating a heaven on earth.
Obviously there isn’t a binary option where one need either believe that existential angst can be solved exclusively in one way rather than the other. Clearly a combination of the two is also viable. In fact, Judaism seems to include both approaches. I would posit, however, that according to the Talmudic quotes mentioned above the main focus must be on the here and now and the impact we can make in this world–Tikkun Olam if you like.
This is the lesson we can learn from trees and Tu B’Shevat. Just as the highest blessing one can give a tree is that all trees that descend from it share its positive attributes, the greatest blessing for a human is that our life have an enduring positive impact on the world around us. In this way we, like Jacob, will live on even after our physical demise.
Simply stated, a life lived striving for a place in an afterlife may miss opportunities to impact humanity positively while alive in the physical form — resulting in missed opportunities for both the individual and humanity.