Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings… (Psalms 8:3)
This little gem once came from the lips of one of my younger students. “Rabbi” he asked me “when trees make new-year resolutions, do they turn over a new leaf?”
I of course smiled at his joke but felt like replying: “Sorry, Avi, I don’t twig!”
Actually I did twig. Because my eight-year-old student touched upon a remarkable idea when he told me that joke. The idea that trees are human too!
A verse in Sefer Devarim provides scriptural ammunition for this outlandish idea. When you besiege a city …do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them. You will eat from them – don’t cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man to confront you in the siege? (Deut. 20:19)
One of the foremost Torah commentators of the Judaeo-Spanish ‘Golden Age’, R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) startlingly maintains that this verse isn’t asking a question, it’s stating a fact. The nature of the Hebrew phrase ki ha-adam eits ha-sadeh is actually ambiguous. It can also mean For man is a tree of the field.
What Ibn Ezra appears to be saying is that inasmuch as humans need fruit-trees for adequate nutrition, our survival is bound up inextricably with theirs. Man is like a tree of the field and a tree of the field is like man!
Trees are ‘human’ too! And their fruits, like human beings, come in all types of delectable shapes, sizes and packaging!
While normative Diaspora custom tends towards the eating of at least fifteen fruits on Tu b’Shevat, the mystical tradition doubles that. R’ Chaim Vital (1542-1620) identifies thirty different fruits for consumption which he divides equally into three categories. Ten are fruits with outer husks, rinds or shells – such as nuts, oranges or mangos. Another ten have an edible exterior but an inner core, pit or stone – for example peaches, plums or apples. And a final ten may be consumed in their entirety – there’s nothing left at the end – like certain types of grapes or olives, or kiwifruit.
Human ‘fruits’ are the same! Possibly we shall recognise ourselves somewhere in the following descriptions!
Type A have a hard outer shell, sometimes unattractive, even prickly like the proverbial sabra (an actual example of a human type named after a fruit!). However their crustiness is only skin-deep. Inside they’re really soft, sweet and appealing – once you break through that tough exterior!
Then there’s Type B. These are sweet, pliant, accommodating – but to a point. There’s an inner protective core there that you can’t easily penetrate. Or there’s an inner angst or indisposition that cannot easily be controlled,
And then there is Type C. These human fruit have no hard crust at all, nor an impenetrable core deep down. They may come across as super-talented, beautiful outside and inside, willing and able do anything for anybody – until they have nothing left to give!
One might be tempted to say that this third type are the finest specimens. And yet I don’t see any shoppers at the supermarket who tell me they only buy seedless grapes and pitted olives to the exclusion of all other fruit! We don’t judge fruits unfavourably just because they happen to have a hard shell or a tough stone. Indeed R’ Chaim Vital divides up his thirty fruits absolutely equally so that no type, no characteristic, is predominant over any other.
Evidently there is a more important quality in a fruit – and in a human fruit too – than a superficial physical or dispositional characteristic. That quality is what we call in Hebrew ta’am. In English it can translate as ‘taste’. However, when applied to matters other than food, it can mean something akin to ‘inner essence’. Not necessarily innate. But able to be cultivated, capable of being ripened, perfected.
In the wonderful world that GD has created, every fruit, when ripe, has its unique, distinctive taste. What is much more wondrous is that every human fruit, has a unique, distinctive inner essence in potentialis or in actualis. And both arboreally and anthropologically, each has its special, indispensable purpose in the perfect design of GD’s creation.
We may be able to do nothing about our outer or even inner shell. Our innate talents may not be of the type that everyone immediately admires. But we, no less than any other human fruit ever created, are entrusted with the task of cultivating ourselves to be the very best, ripest, most succulent fruit that we can possibly be. Then we can happily take our unique place on the platter of life equally with all the rest!
So as we make our berakhot and sample our many and varied fruits on Tu b’Shevat, let’s resolve, as all good trees should at a new year, to reflect on the inspirational idea that fruit-trees and human beings have a lot in common.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to twig!
Reprinted from my book Spirals of The Soul on the festivals.