The Unheeded Cry of the Trees

The Jewish festival of Tu Bishvat, described in the Mishnah as the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees, will be celebrated this year starting on Sunday night January 21 through to the following evening.

As I reflect on the significance of this ecologically focused festival I am reminded of a childhood classic; Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. Published in 1971, The Lorax is a cautionary tale about the cost of environmental degradation. It pits the Once-ler, an opportunistic entrepreneur, who discovers in the mythical Truffula tree, an untapped resource yielding a highly desirable garment called a Thneed. As the Once-ler devastates forests of Truffula trees to feed the growing Thneed market, he is repeatedly confronted by the Lorax, a furry character who “speaks for the trees.”  Here, in his distinctive rhythm, Dr. Seuss introduces the Lorax:

“The instant I’d finished I heard a ga-Zump! I looked. I saw something pop out of the stump of the tree I’d chopped down. It was sort of a man. Describe him…That’s hard. I don’t know if I can. He was shortish, and oldish, and brownish and mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy. Mister! He said with a sawdusty sneeze, I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs– he was very upset as he shouted and puffed– What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?”

Remarkably, the notion that trees have a voice, but are unable to speak for themselves, existed in the rabbinic imagination long before Dr. Seuss, and is recorded in the midrashic work Pirke de-Rabi Eliezer. This text from the early first millennium reads as follows:

Six cries pierce the world from one end to the other, but their sound is unheard.

When a fruit bearing tree is cut down.

When a serpent sheds its skin.

When a woman is divorced from her husband.

When a woman is made love to for the first time by her husband.

When a fetus emerges from its mother’s womb.

When a soul departs from the body.

What does this midrash mean? What is this paradoxical piercing cry, that is unheard?  And what does a cut tree share with the other noted moments?

This midrash contains multiple levels of meaning.

Firstly, what the seemingly unrelated six experiences share, is that they are moments of irreversible transition. Such moments can be described as ceasural moments, in which the break with previous reality is distinct and pronounced. There is no going back to the status quo ante.

Secondly, the piercing cry, points to the fact that transition is always painful. Not all the examples listed are inherently sad ones. Lovemaking for the first time and birth are causes for great celebration. Yet, the midrash includes them with moments of grief, like death and divorce, because they share a major transition, and all transitions, even the most joyful are not without elements of pain.

Thirdly, each of these transitions has far reaching environmental or societal impact; birth, death, the building or destruction of a relationship, the serpent shedding its skin can be read as a metaphor for adolescent growth, the despoiling of the rainforest. The long-term impact of each of these moments extends far beyond the individuals or elements immediately affected. How can one begin to measure the impact of a single life, a happy family or a tree for that matter? And yet the tragedy is that we are frequently oblivious to this. These moments cry out piercingly, but the sound goes unheard. The world of a family celebrating the birth of a child, is altered forever. So too for those who experience love, or loss. But for the rest of the world, such moments pass entirely unnoticed. And this is sadly, to our detriment.

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Both Dr. Seuss and the midrash believe it does, but that unfortunately, it is imperceptible to the untrained ear.

Perhaps that is why we counter-intuitively celebrate Tu Bishvat in the dead of winter. The Rabbis explain that this date was chosen because it is when the sap begins to flow deep within the trees. While to all external appearances, the tree seems dead, deep inside, life is being renewed. By aligning Tu Bishvat with this outwardly imperceptible moment, the rabbis invite us to refine our senses, so as to tune in to the rhythms of life pulsing just beneath the surface. To revere and celebrate it.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the Neubauer Executive Director at Tufts Hillel, and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University.
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