Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

The Rupture Between the Trees of Life and Knowledge


When we think of Parshat Sh’lach, we think about the episode of the Jewish people failing to be able to enter into the Promised Land. It takes up most of the verses of the parsha. [Numbers 13-14]

But there is a related story that’s only five verses short, which focuses on a very complicated story: an individual who goes unnamed, who violates the Shabbat. [Numbers 15:32-36]

Why is this story important? What is its message?

Indeed, Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, feels the need to unveil the anonymity of the person, and suggest that the person who violates the Shabbat is Tzelafchad. [Shabbat 96b]

He is attacked by his colleagues: “Rabbi Akiva, you’re the one who always tells us, ‘Love thy neighbor as you love yourself’! Why do you need to unmask who this person is? If you’re right, it was the wrong thing to do; and if you’re wrong – if that’s not what Tzelafchad did – you’re blaming him for something that he didn’t commit!”

The Ba’alei Kabbalah, the Kabbalists, look at this story and they review the story in the following fashion: accompanying the Jewish people is the Eitz HaChayyim and the Eitz HaDa’as. [Zohar 3:157a]

The Eitz HaChayyim, which we find in the Garden of Eden, represents the idea of spirituality, the idea of ethereal concepts, and the Eitz HaDa’as represents the idea of the physical world and finding God in the physical world, not only in ethereal concepts.

Our job is to merge the Eitz HaChayyim, the spiritual concepts, and the Eitz HaDa’as, the intellectual, physical world, into one.

Indeed, the whole theme of Shabbat is that idea of merging the physical and the spiritual into one. It’s an island in time.

Moshe Rabbeinu highlights that this truly is the message of living in the Land of Israel, and he asks the meraglim, he asked the representatives regarding the land:

“היש בה עץ אם אין?”
“Is there a tree in it or not?”
[Numbers 13:20]

Will you be able to find the tree that represents both the Eitz HaChayyim, the spiritual ideals, and the Eitz HaDa’as, the physical ideas, into one?

Will you be able to understand the message of the Land of Israel, the spiritual and the physical fused to one?

The representatives failed to understand that message of the land of Israel, and the mekoshesh etzim – Tzelafchad, according to the Kabbalists – walks into the garden that is accompanying the Jewish people, and he separates the tree that represents the physical and the spiritual.

Because the trauma that has been created is that, in the desert, “BaMidbar”, it’s impossible to be able to merge the physical and the spiritual into one.

The reason why the story is so critically important is that the story represents the aftermath of one individual who fails to understand the message of being able to merge the physical and the spiritual into one.

It’s a continuation of the calamity that happened with the emissaries into the land of Israel.

Rabbi Akiva lives his entire life of trying to fuse the spiritual and the physical together. That’s why Rabbi Akiva is the rabbi of General Bar Kokhba. His job is still to maintain the physical and the spiritual together, even in the most desperate of times.

There’s a continuum: we’re introduced to the challenge of the meraglim, the challenge of the emissaries.

Then we’re introduced to two commandments that speak about going into the Land of Israel, and only when we go into the Land of Israel to use the physical bounty of the Land of Israel in service to God, the merger of the Eitz HaDa’as, the physical, and the Eitz HaChayyim, and the spiritual, into one.

The trauma, once again, of the mekoshesh etzim, who tries to separate it, and the message that is relevant to each and every one of us: to recognize the fact that in our life, we cannot be mekoshesh etzim, we can’t separate the physical and the spiritual.

The challenge is to live in both worlds. We have to merge the Eitz HaDa’as and the Eitz HaChayyim. We can’t be ‘mekoshesh etzim’, we can’t uproot these trees.

We have to live under the shade of both of them, the shade of the physical and the shade of the spiritual.

And to realize when we are able to live with both of them fused together, we are able to achieve the goals of what it means to be part of the Chosen People, to be part of Knesset Yisrael and to make a difference in the creation and the development of this world.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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