Tu BShvat — Man, Trees and Rav Soloveitchik in the, ‘Lonely Man of Faith’

(For what’s on today for Tu BShvat look on my IsraelB Online Community.)

In Israel, Tu B’Shvat means so much more than back home. After all, we are living in Eretz Yisrael where the fruits we are eating and singing about at our Tu B’Shvat Sedarim are actually grown and where the New Year for Trees as discussed in Masechet Rosh Hashanah has Halachic significance.

Tu B’Shvat is a time when you are likely to hear songs and poems comparing man to trees. Of course, the parallel of man to trees is rooted (excuse the pun) in the Tenach. For instance, in Tehilim 1:1, man is compared to a tree planted besides streams of water.

Furthermore, the Torah in Devarim 20:19, also brings man and trees together in the same Pasuk. However, the plain meaning of this Pasuk is that man is NOT like a tree and is more questioning the parallel. Rashi in this Pasuk comments in fact that in war it is permitted to attack soldiers of the enemy, but a tree is not a soldier and Jews shouldn’t feel the need to deprive anyone of the tree’s fruit. Devarim 20:19 is saying, when you go to war against a city you have to besiege it for a long time in order to capture it – UNLIKE man, who sadly are killed in war, the trees must be left alone to live and you CANNOT cut them down. Only those trees you know do not yield fruit may be destroyed.

So, is man essentially like a tree? I want to suggest that this question actually reflects the dichotomy in the nature of man and his complexity, as described by Rav Soloveichik in ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ as I will explain.

The Chiddushei Ha’Rim, the grandfather of the Sfat Emet, quotes the Rabbenu Tam who writes in his ‘Sefer Hayashar’ that man is like an upside down tree, his roots are in Heaven and the branches and fruits of the tree, represent Torah and Mitzvot, connects him to earth. The Chiddushei Ha’Rim says that Olam Habbah, is where mans roots and origins truely are and that is where he should be focused. This world, Olam Hazeh, is just a means, a channel to getting there. There is a plethora of Chassidic literature on Tu B’Shvat that in various ways says the same. That man is weak, defenseless and helpless and blows, sways and drifts in the wind, like a tree. From this perspective, life is transient, ephemeral and temporary, where man is ever cognisant and mindful of his mortality.

But, does the Torah itself view man as a passive, impermanent bystander in this world who can’t take control of and shape his destiny?

If we look through Sefer Beraishit, when the Torah describes the Avot, they are men whose roots are very much in this world and not the next. Avraham Avinu in Beraishit 21:33 plants in Beersheva, Yitzchak Avinu is described in Beraishit Rabbah 65 as staying in Eretz Yisrael in order to plant and sew.Yaakov Avinu in Beraishit 33:19, is described as planting his tent in the fields.

So, we see all three of our Avot, are described as men who plant and sew in Eretz Yisrael. They were people who were very much entrenched and fixed to the Land, to Eretz Yisrael and Olam Hazeh – this world and not Olam Habah and higher spiritual worlds. We see in Sefer Beraishit, the opposite to what the Chiddushei Ha’Rim and other Chassidic writings say. That man is not rooted in Heaven, but rather is very much part of this world and his foundations are very firmly ingrained in the ground, not Heavens.

Rav Soloveichik in ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ talks about Adam 1 and Adam 2, based on the first and second Perek of Sefer Beraishit. In Perek 1 of Sefer Beraishit, Adam 1 conquers, rules and takes control. He is master of his own destiny. He is very much rooted and in control of this world. In contrast, Adam 2 in Perek 2, is not so active and is more passive.

Rav Soloveichik proposes that the two accounts of the creation of man (in chapters 1 and 2 of Beraishit) portray two types of man, two human ideals. In their approaches to G-d, the world and the self. Adam 1, is guided by the quest for dignity, which is a surface social quality attained by control over one’s environment. He is a creative and majestic personality who espouses a practical-utilitarian approach to the world.

Adam 2, on the other hand, is guided by the quest for redemption, which is a quality of the depth personality attained by control over oneself. He is humble and submissive, and yearns for an intimate relationship with God and with his fellow man in order to overcome his sense of incompleteness and inadequacy – hence it is Adam 2 who is commanded to marry.

How we see the analogy between man and trees is a reflection of how we perceive ourselves and our religious outlook. Do we perceive ourselves as weak and passive and that our lives down here in ‘Olam Hazeh’ are mere thoroughfares on the way to Olam Habah. Or rather, are we down in this world to conquer and be part of it and we do aim to be creative and take control over our fate and destiny like Adam 1 would. Are our roots in heavens, like the Chiddushei Ha’Rim suggested, or firmly in the ground, as we see in Sefer Beraishit with the examples I drew from the Avot?

I think the answer is in balancing between these two poles. On the one hand we need to be firmly rooted in this world, as Adam 1 is, in order to fulfil our Divine Mission to be a ‘Mamlechet Cohanim and Goy Kadosh’ and perform ‘Tikun Olam’ . But we also need to bear in mind there is a sphere of the religious experience that is beyond this world and the here and now, as Adam 2 yearns for.

The Maharal in Devarim 20:19 says that the comparison of people to trees has far reaching consequences. Just as trees must grow branches, twigs, flowers, and fruit to fulfill their purpose, so man is put on earth to be productive and work to produce moral, intellectual and spiritual truth. Which is why the Maharal explains Chazal refer to the reward for good deeds as “fruit”, for they are the true human growth.

About the Author
Benjy Singer works in social media, content writing and editing. He runs a popular online community,, which is a very useful resource, especially for Olim. A graduate of the LSE, UCL and Yeshivat Har Etzion, Benjy enjoys writing, teaching and connecting people.
Related Topics
Related Posts