In Ancient Egypt, several types of trees appear in Egyptian mythology and art, although the hieroglyph written to signify a tree appears to represent the sycamore fig (ficus sycomorus) of the Garden of Eden in particular. The sycamore fig tree has a special mythical significance. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, twin sycamores stood at the eastern gate of heaven from which the sun god Re emerged each morning.
Sycamores were often planted near tombs, and burial in coffins made of sycamore wood returned a dead person to the womb of the mother tree goddess.
The sycamore was also regarded as a manifestation of the goddesses Nut, Isis, and especially of Hathor, who was given the epithet Lady of the Sycamore.
In the northern Indian holy city of Allahabad, there is a fig tree called Akshaya Vat located in the Patalpuri Temple. A Hindu god named Narayana (Brahma or Vishnu) was once challenged by a Hindu sage to demonstrate his power; so Narayana briefly flooded the world. The fig tree (ficus) Akshaya Vat was the only living thing that stood above the water. Some Hindus still worship the tree at Patalpuri as the same one from the legend.
Buddhists believe that the Bodhi (ficus) Tree where Siddhartha was sitting when he attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago is also still alive. It is a large and very old sacred fig tree (ficus religiosa) located in Bodh Gaya, in northern India.
In Biblical symbolism there is much fig/ficus lore. Adam and Eve covered up with fig leaves and “fig” occurs over 50 times in the Bible, often as a symbol of peace, prosperity, fertility (Micah 4:1-4) and long life. That a tree like the Bodhi tree could actually be 2,500 years old, was rejected by medieval scientists for generations; even after Leonardo da Vinci, who was the first person to mention that trees form rings annually; and that their thickness is determined by the conditions under which they grew.
There is a grove of 16 trees in Lebanon known as The Olive Trees Of Noah (Genesis 8:11), that have been growing for the last 6,000 years. They’re 4,265 feet above sea level, which almost certainly would make them the highest olive trees alive at the time of Noah. Most impressive of all, the trees are still bearing fruit. They really could be called Trees of Life.
But by Tree of Life religions do not mean a very old still living tree; but a mythic, symbolic tree that connects two or three seemingly very different realms; just as a physical tree is rooted down into the earth, with its branches and leafs reaching up to the sun, and its trunk and branches serving as a connecting link.
The simplest connection is between heaven (Divine energy) and earth (human souls).
For those who believe in gilgul-reincarnation the tree is a deciduous tree, and the connection is between the three realms of birth, death and rebirth. The roots are souls waiting to be born, the trunk and branches are those alive now, and the fallen leaves are those who have died and returned to the earth to be recycled again.
Jewish tradition offers a third image. Everyone has heard of the Tree of Life that was in the Garden of Eden. Very few people are aware that this Tree of Life is also referred to four more times in the Hebrew Bible, all of them in the Book of Proverbs. By examining these four references we can learn very important things about the Tree of Life that stood next to the (Morality) Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.
Proverbs 15:4 teaches us that just by speaking words of kindness and comfort we are able to strengthen, revive and heal a human’s spirit; while speaking nasty words of anger, hate and meanness are able to crush people’s spirits, “A soothing tongue is a Tree of Life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit. (NIV trans)
Today we are so concerned with freedom of speech that we have lost awareness of our responsibility to always use our tongues kindly as a Torah (Divine teaching) of kindness (Proverbs 31:26). Politicians and religious leaders especially need to follow this teaching.
Proverbs 13:12 teaches us the importance of our seeking to realize our longings for love and peace, because negativity, cynicism and despair destroy our spirits. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a Tree of Life” that makes us productive and generous.
Proverbs 11:30 teaches us that doing good deeds for others and for God is the way to save our lives from a perverse and negative tongue filled with criticism of others and ourselves. “The fruit of the righteous is a Tree of Life, and one who is wise saves lives.”
Finally, Proverbs 3:18 tells us that by making a strong commitment to following God’s teachings we will live a life of goodness and love: “She (wisdom) is a Tree of Life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her tight will be happy.” The rabbis took the feminine words wisdom and Torah (God’s teachings) as interchangeable. To understand the nature of her Torah wisdom, we have to read the preceding verses in Proverbs:
1 My son, do not forget my Torah, keep my Mitsvot (commandments) in your heart,
2 for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity.
3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and mankind… then jump to 13-18 “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she (Torah wisdom) is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a Tree of Life to those who take hold of her; all who hold her tight will be happy.”
Just as the biological Tree of Life shows how all the millions of species are related and interrelated; Genesis 3:20 proclaims Eve to be the spiritual mother of all living (humankind) who are thus not strangers but family. Thus, the Tree of Life is both grammatically and biologically associated with the feminine, and she is best portrayed as a tree with a female form.
Jewish mystics (Kabbalists) added to the biological and maternal symbolism the personal aspect of marital sexuality, teaching that the Shekeenah- the feminine presence of God- rests upon a man who makes love to his wife on Shabbat.
Actually the Shekeenah can rest on a man whenever he makes love to his wife with a sense of reverence, tenderness, adoration and love. The Shabbat adds holiness to their feelings.
The key personal attitude is the husband’s sense that his wife is God’s gift, the source of his blessings, and the most wonderful manifestation of God’s personal presence in his life.
If, in addition to this attitude, he also makes love to his wife with the intention of unifying the heavenly realm as he unifies the earthly one, he and his wife enact a great Tikun- a spiritual mending, healing or uplifting. This Tikun is woven together with similar Tikunim from other married couples into a crown for the Divine One who also unites with His Shekeenah on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
Just as the prayers proclaimed in each Synagogue are woven into a crown for the Holy One of Israel, so too are the holy unifications of each couple married under the Hupah woven into a spiritual crown for the aspect of the female, God’s gift, Tree of Life: “all who hold her tight will be happy” —“wife as Tree of Life”— spiritual beauty.