Traditional Judaism is Bonsai tree tending

Yes it is, you heard that right.

The Jewish holiday season, filled with those familiar sights, sounds and of course tastes, is an appropriate time to reflect on our relationship with tradition.

Tradition (when it’s not boring us to tears) typically makes us feel secure and it makes us feel that we are doing the right thing. Not that I’m saying departing from tradition and doing something new is necessarily wrong. But one is entering unchartered territory and that naturally makes us feel nervous.

The irony is that once you get used to doing that new, bold, daring thing, after a while, it starts to feel secure and right, just like any time-honored tradition.

I think we can all agree that keeping a tradition just for the sense of security and stability it provides– tradition for its own sake– is not a good enough reason not to depart from it.

I think we can also agree that at the other extreme, change for the sake of change is reckless and short-sighted. It satisfies our desire to try something fresh and new, but it can lead to a never-ending cycle of fad-living–always discarding the things that might have lasting value.

So we need to step back and analyze what makes tradition valuable and what makes change valuable.

An insight into this problem came to me recently from an unexpected source. A quirky news item that quietly made the rounds during the 70th anniversary of the atom bombing of Japan by the United States in August 1945 caught my attention. It was about the 390 year old Japanese white pine tree donated to the National Aboretum in Washington in 1976 by a family who survived the Hiroshima blast with their tree nursery intact.

The story of the tree’s survival from nuclear holocaust and the remarkable gesture of reconciliation between the Yamaki family and the U.S. wasn’t the only thing that piqued my interest. Luckily, the reporters of the story also included some descriptions of the art of bonsai-style tree tending by a witty and articulate curator, Jack Sustic.

Just read the way he and Adrian Higgins describe his job and the sense of responsibility, meaning and purpose he gets from it:

 Jack Sustic has his own priceless exhibit to fret over, a Japanese white pine tree that began life circa 1625. The pine is different from the other icons: It’s alive, meaning it has the potential not to be alive. Sustic, who is curator of the world-class bonsai collection at the U.S. National Arboretum, is ready for every contingency. “I’ve packed a suitcase in the hall. If this died, you wouldn’t be able to find me. I would be gone somewhere.”

Here is one insight: A tradition is a method for keeping something alive–an event, a person, and idea–making it immortal. When you neglect a tradition, something dies.

Ensuring the continued survival of such an important piece of the collection is no easy task…

He joked that tending to a centuries­­-old tree every day can be enough pressure to keep him up at night. Unlike other museum pieces, there is no recourse when a plant dies.

Maintaining a tradition is honorable because shows responsibility to the thing you are trying to keep alive–and responsibility to the next generation by making sure the something is around for them to experience as well.

The next insight by Sustic was even more powerful to me:

“One of the things that makes it so special is, if you imagine, somebody has attended to that tree every day since 1625,”

Tradition is a method by which one is able to link up to an ongoing chain of history. You aren’t just you. You are a part of a legacy that stretches back from before you were born and, if you don’t blow it, will continue after you will be gone. The humble keeper of tradition anonymously shares a piece of that immortality of the event, person, or idea, he is perpetuating.

Sustic, who came to know and love bonsai when he served in the Army in Korea in the early 1980s, says the art form has taught him patience and humility. “Bonsai isn’t for everyone, but it can be transformative to your life. It certainly was in mine.”

He and his assistant, Aarin Packard, are mindful that they are merely stewards of plants that have received the care of generations of gardeners before and, it is hoped, generations yet to come.

Such are the weighty virtues of tradition.

And what of the virtues of change? This too, surprisingly, can also be gleaned from bonsai tending:

Bonsai, Sustic said, refers not to the type of tree but rather the manner in which it is cared for. It is the blending of nature and art, he said…  “I always like to say bonsai is like a verb. It’s not a noun; it’s doing.”

Bonsai gardening teaches us that tradition and change do not have to be antagonistic opposites. The ability to apply innovation and ingenuity to mold a delicate, living entity into new shapes and forms takes great skill, patience and care, but the effort pays off.

Aggressive pruning or grafting will kill a tree, but a measured process of creatively expressing and enhancing the different qualities and potentials that lie dormant actually contributes to its long-term survival.

The analogy to Halacha–like a verb; “going”–and not a noun, I believe is self-evident. We find traditions also have many facets and hidden dimensions. The value of change perhaps lies in the ability to express the tradition’s different symbolisms and messages in different ways and for different times, each with it’s own powerful unique expression which can mean something different to each individual at that point in history. One can even find new symbols and meanings as yet undiscovered.

And that survival can exceed all expectations.

Like that Japanese white pine, Traditional Judaism has also endured near extinction from holocaust and transplanting across continents into new environments and new surroundings.

The white pine has long outlived its life expectancy and has spent about a tenth of its life in Washington.

“I’m reluctant to look because I don’t want it to say 200 years,” Sustic said of the tree’s maximum life expectancy.


In 2016, museum officials said, the bonsai will have a new home in the Japanese Pavilion, which is being renovated in honor of its upcoming 40th anniversary.

The tree will bear the same placard that triggers the amazement of passersby every day:

“In training since 1625.”

It takes loving, devoted, and creative Bonsai gardeners like Jack Sustic to teach us how we can apply our skill, patience, and creativity to Jewish tradition to link up with history and achieve immortality.

About the Author
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying and teaching talmud and Jewish thought in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
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