Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

What trees can teach us

Tu B’Shevat has changed over time, reinventing itself in at least four incarnations: Talmudic, Kabbalist, Zionist and environmentalist.  Now we can add one more dimension: relational.  Trees are teaching humans how we might all get along.

Deuteronomy 20 asks, “Are trees of the field human” that they should callously be cut down?  No, they aren’t human – but the Torah implies that they might be able to teach humans a lot about how to act toward innocent bystanders in times of war.  From the very beginning, trees have been seen as receptacles of our highest aspirations – the Torah itself is called a “tree of life.”

I’ve always been inspired by Shel Silverstein’s timeless classic, “The Giving Tree” (which you can read here in full).  It speaks of how a tree continues to give of itself long after it is no longer useful, even when it becomes merely a stump.  It’s a lovely poem, but the premise, that trees actually form relationships, seems a little far-fetched.

Or does it?

Now we are finding that trees indeed interact with those around them. Dr. Tamir Klein of the Weitzman Institute recently made a startling discovery that neighboring trees relate with one another in complex ways. Klein found that the same trees not only compete for resources such as light and nutrients, but also engage in sharing.  Trees form communities and protect one another, and amazingly, they also form families, with parents protecting their children.

These discoveries are echoed in the current bestseller, “The Hidden Life of Trees,”  by Peter Wohlleben, which I picked up a few weeks ago.  The complexities of a tree’s ecosystem are mind-boggling.  As Wohlleben writes, “There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A mere teaspoonful contains many miles of fungal filaments. All these work the soil, transform it, and make it so valuable for the trees.”

When strong trees get sick, as happens inevitably, other trees rally to their support, through root networks and crowning in ways that maximize water and sunlight for those who need it most.  This all plays out at a much slower pace than humans are used to – but it does play out.  Trees mount defenses.  Trees even feel pain. Leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt.

Wohlleben speaks of a “wood wide web” of soil fungi connecting trees and other vegetation “in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods.”  He writes of how trees communicate through emitting and interpreting scents, often as warnings when predators approach.

“If every tree were looking out only for itself,” he adds, “then quite a few of them would never reach old age.”

Here’s another gem from the book:

Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered. And who knows, perhaps one day the language of trees will eventually be deciphered, giving us the raw material for further amazing stories. Until then, when you take your next walk in the forest, give free rein to your imagination-in many cases, what you imagine is not so far removed from reality, after all!

While comes as no shock to us that trees are living beings, perhaps it is time to stop calling them “things.” Decades ago, Martin Buber wrote in “I and Thou,”

I contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of blue silver ground. I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, thriving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air – and the growing itself in the darkness…. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

I’m not suggesting that we stop picking fruit or using wood for our homes.  Even Wohlleben acknowledges that in order to survive, we need the help of organic substances of other species.  All animals do.

But just as we have now come to understand that other animals too have complicated emotional existences (yes, even fruit flies have feelings), we need to see that tree as a fellow traveler on this increasingly fragile planet, a “thou” rather than an “it,” and one not existing in isolation but living in relationship with all of us.

Shel Silverstein was not far off base in bringing us that immortal tree-buddy.  And if we can begin to anticipate every walk in the woods as chance to forge new and fascinating relationships, sort of like a high school dance with sap, maybe our world would be much better off.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
Related Topics
Related Posts