I’m not feeling inspired. But neither was the tree. I’m giving a talk tonight, but I’m not feeling rooted, or even grounded.
How am I to spread my branches and give off fruit, if I don’t feel connected to my source?
How am I supposed to provide the necessary oxygen, a breath of fresh air, for the people around me, if I am out of my element?
How am I to provide shelter and shade, when I have no foliage?
I stand here as an independent, autonomous person. Autonomous vehicle, a body driving a soul.
You see, I am a man, but I am like a tree.
I am a man, but I am much more like an animal than a tree.
Why would I celebrate the birthday of the trees, when I don’t even celebrate the birthdays of the animals, which are much more similar to us on a molecular, biological, and evolutionary level?
In fact, according to the Sages, there are four basic forms of life. In ascending order: Mineral, Vegetative, Animal, and Speaker – or the Human.
So why should we skip a level and compare ourselves to the trees? What is it about a tree that is worthy of human celebration and emulation over that of the animal kingdom?
A tree is defined by growth. The moment a tree is no longer growing it is no longer a tree. Now it is a log. Lifeless, fuel for a fire.
As humans, there is so much going on in our lives, that our purpose and our everyday obligation can be obscured by the everyday actions – the hustle – that it takes just to subsist. Just to exist.
We can forget that beyond just maintaining the body so that it doesn’t separate from the soul, we must always be growing.
And what kind of growth must it be?
It must be growth in two directions.
The tree doesn’t just grow up. It grows down. In fact, the higher the branches reach, the deeper the roots must be. There’s an exposed tree reaching toward the sky and then there’s a hidden tree growing beneath the ground. The strong tree trunk, the branches and the fruit, get all of the credit. They’re the face of the brand. But there is no growth above ground, if there is no growth beneath the ground.
The ground represents the cold, inanimate world of mineral life. There is no breathing, there is no growth, there is no animation. But the trees suck from the minerals of the earth and transform rock into life-giving fuel.
The tree takes the inanimate and incorporates it into the animated growth, limited as it is, of a tree.
In our lives we have the part that we exhibit to others – our persona, our personality, our image, our brand. Consciously or not, we are married to an idea of self that is seen from the outside in. An identity that we believe is us. An awareness of self that is stored in hundreds if not thousands of shards – mini-reflections in other people’s minds, in other people’s eyes.
This is where we seem most alive, most dynamic, most engaging. Animated. Growth. But this is often disconnected from our source, disconnected from the deeper self that lays beneath the surface and is constantly digging deeper, whether we’re aware of it or not.
It is this growth, the underground growth, that allows for you to extend your branches, to grow fruit, to provide shade, to oxygenize the air, and to be a source of life for those around you.
This growth, which transforms the coldest, darkest, unseen areas of your psyche into life-giving branches, is what allows for renewal even after you experience a winter.
Even when the tree looks bare, colorless, lifeless, the roots beneath the ground store the energy and are always prepared for renewal.
As we continue to learn and interact in time and space, let us remember that our autonomous movement and decision making on the surface is actually rooted, immobile even, but that rootedness gives us all of the strength we need to break free of the past season’s expectations and image. To recreate ourselves based on the wellspring of near infinite resources that lays just beneath the surface.
The Torah says we are a tree of the field, a fruit bearing tree, and not an animal, which seems to be more related to us, because a tree is defined by growth, whereas an animal is defined by existence.
An animal does all that is necessary to maintain their existence, including eating, sleeping, drinking, defending, and attacking.
On the other hand, a tree’s entire essence is to grow and to give off fruit – to give benefit, to give life to the world around it.
And this is the entirety of humankind. To grow to give life to those around us.
You see, I am a man. I am a tree.
As delivered to the Pratt Community Synagogue of the Arts.
Tonight and tomorrow, the 15th of Shevat, we celebrate the birthday of the trees. Our birthday. Click here for more on this special holiday.