The tree is a sustaining metaphor in Judaism. It stands at the center in the Garden of Eden, perhaps the first metaphor authored by Adam and Eve. The Torah is referred to as a tree of life, it’s teaching an illumination of meaning and happiness. The first Psalm reads that the happiness of the individual is likened to “a tree planted beside the streams of water, which yields fruit in its season, whose foliage never fades and whatever it produces it thrives.” Isaiah 11:1-10, meanwhile, imagines redemption will grow as a new shoot out of an old stump — a time still to come that will give birth to wisdom, truth and reverence for what we have failed to achieve previously.
Trees thrive as individuals and within communities. The redwood tree, which is part of the sequoia family, is the oldest and tallest in North America. While each one is awe-inspiring on its own, together they exist because they stand in groves nourished by neighboring organisms in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The 400-year-old Parson Jones tree that stands in Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, Calif., is a stunning example. Its neighbors feed its beauty and longevity and support the tree to pillar into the heavens.
A tree’s health depends on its ability to weather internal and external circumstances. Trees grow not only in groves, but also in families and generations. Four-century-old elders reach high into the sky, while as many as five or six adolescent trees can be found surrounding it. Still another generation of saplings, barely rooted, grows just outside the circle of the adolescent generation, blending in with the ferns and mosses that stick low to the ground of a redwood forest.
An elder tree protects the younger generation, as well as itself, by preventing them from taking over the role of tallest tree in the forest. But the moment that the eldest tree falls, naturally or not, the next generation shoots up and grows into their new role.
Until this generational shift takes place, the various generations of trees occupy their places in this chain. When the shift does take place, however, they move with ease into their new roles and new shapes in the forest. The process takes place internally unless external factors come into play and disrupt the natural order. Trees are cut down for homes, heat and development, their fellers ignorant of or lacking care for the effect on the entire system. A forest’s health and the health of the surrounding ground are profoundly affected by the simplest of changes.
The health of these trees and their forests is analogous to Judaism and Jewish life. Just as these forests stand at a crossroads in their own sustenance and viability, so too does Jewish life and identity in 21st-century America. During the season of Tu B’Shevat, let us remember the ways in which the trees and other aspects of God’s creation can inform how we think about our own individual and communal lives as we work to strengthen our ecosystem and ourselves.
Rabbi Jessy Gross runs Charm City Tribe, a program of the Jewish Community Center.