Tu B’shevat’s four kinds of trees

Tu B’shvat is next week, so I offer a wonderful spiritual insight about four different kinds of tree God planted in the Garden of Eden for our Jewish world.

Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (1801-1854), founder of the Izhbitza-Radzyn dynasty of Hasidic Judaism, states in his commentary (Mei HaShiloach) that Genesis 2:9 actually speaks of four different kinds of trees that symbolize four different types of Jewish religious lives.

These are: the “tree that is pleasing to the sight”, and the tree that is “good to eat”, as well as the more famous “tree of life” and “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”.

According to Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner, the tree that is “pleasing to the sight” is the tsadik who engages in doing mitzvot and good deeds. They live, and have always lived a conventional, pious, orthodox lifestyle; and their activities garb them in honor relative to the other people around them.

As it is written: Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. But delights in the Lord’s Torah, and meditates on His Torah day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

Yet Rabbi Mordecai Yosef does not mention that the “pleasing to the sight” people study Torah day and night (as does the Psalmist), so one might think that this yeshivah type lifestyle is symbolized by the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But that is not what Rabbi Mordecai Yosef says.

What the Izbica Rabbi does state is that the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” refers to people who are always uncertain about the will of God. This is not because these kind of people are ignorant.

Rather they know enough to know that there are always several ways to deal with any issue, and they are not sure if they should be sharp or soft, acting or reacting strictly or leniently to different people in different circumstances.

This I think would make them less judgmental of others. Thus, those who truly have “knowledge of good and evil” are not quick to judge. They desire is to understand all the factors involved in each situation and avoid simplistic self righteous judgements and solutions.

They see the need for compassion and flexibility in religious matters. They fear prohibiting that which may be permitted, even more than permitting what might be forbidden.

This implies a kind of knowledge rarely taught in a Yeshivah. It is best learned from close association with a respected person whose religious life embodies these softer aspects of personality and character.

This teaching may explain why the publication of Mei Hashiloach was met with controversy; and some people actually burned copies of the book.

This kind of person is symbolized by the “good to eat tree”. One can see a good looking tree from afar, but one must come very close and actually eat-internalize a “good to eat tree”. These people’s religious life isn’t easily seen though his or her mitzvot.

Rather one needs to experience the inner life of these kinds of religious personalities. They are not good because they follow all the laws written in the holy books. Their goodness comes from within, because their very formation was to be good and kind.

Finally, there are the people whose spiritual lives are symbolized by “the tree of Life”: the Baalei Teshuvah people. These people may have lived a large part of their lives remote from the Jewish path and the Jewish community. Indeed, they may not even have been Jewish previously.

They may still not be as full of Torah and Mitzvot as they could be. But they have significantly changed their present life from their past life; and that alone makes them part of the tree of life people.

As the Siddur says, “She (Teshuvah-life change improvement) is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who hold fast to her will be blessed. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. (Proverbs 3:18&17)

This Mei HaShiloach concept may have influenced the following coment by the Gerer Rebbe: “When Ruth came to Judea she was told she would not be admitted as a convert because she was a Moabite (Deuteronomy 23:4) but she persisted (demanding conversion) even though the Jewish community did not accept her. Eventually the leaders of the time reinterpreted the Torah’s prohibition to apply only to Moabite men.

The Gerer Rebbe then added: In the future those who persist in becoming Jews, though unwelcome by the community will eventually force a new more liberal policy, and will later gain acceptance as Jews” (Siach Sefrei Kodesh, Lodz 1929 5 vols. vol. 2 p. 72)

Those non-Jews who demand to be accepted within the people of Israel “your people shall be my people” will be another kind of ‘blessing tree’ planted within the Garden of the Jewish world.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
Related Topics
Related Posts