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The Roots of Humanity

Delivered by Rabbi Elaine Zecher on Rosh Hashanah 5781 at Temple Israel of Boston

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees this summer as I have watched a stream of people make their way into the woods that abut our family’s home. With the crises of Covid containing us in boxes on Zoom or the rooms of our own homes, these dense woods have beckoned and welcomed us, surrounding us with sounds, smells, and sights that have been a balm for our souls.

There is a name for the healing effects of this activity. Shinrin Yoku is Japanese for forest bathing. It’s a 40 minute walk in the woods shown to reduce daily stress and, more poignantly in these days, technostress. Forest bathing has a long history in many traditions.

Our own Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, an 18th century Hasidic master, wrote:

May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
Among the trees and grass,
Among all growing things…
To enter into prayer
There may I express all that is in my heart
Talking to You, the one to whom I belong.

There is the story of a child who liked to wander in the woods. Concerned about the possibility of danger, the parent asked, “Why do you walk each day in the woods?” The child answered. “I go there to find God.” The parent replied gently. “I am glad you are searching for God, but, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” To that the child responded. “Yes, God may be the same but I’m not.”

Jewish tradition(i) lifts up the significance of trees and advises that if you have a sapling and you hear that the Messiah is coming, first plant the sapling and then welcome the Messiah.

Jews may have been the first tree huggers. We speak of the Torah as the tree of life and say, “It is a tree of life to those hold onto it tightly.” That is another way of saying, hugging!

The Midrash(ii) teaches, “If not for the trees, human life could not exist.”

Our Torah(iii) conveys a curious and interesting message:

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them….Are trees of the field human כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה to withdraw before you into the besieged city?

What does this idea mean כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה Are trees of the field human?

The phrase in modern Hebrew is often used as an adage: “for as a human, so the tree of the field”. How we regard one is connected to how we treat the other. In the Biblical context, it is a question that already has an answer. Trees can’t retreat from a battlefield. They are vulnerable
to the violence of war and there is an obligation to protect them. (I will come back to this.)

Commentators such as Rashi and Ibn Ezraiv acknowledged the comparison as a way to equate a tree with a human and noted that the life of humans depends on trees in the field. The Hebrew suggests an additional and deeper meaning. כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה Could a tree possess qualities that might inform the way we live our lives as humans and help us reach the core of what we seek during these days of reflection?

In his book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben coined the term the “wood wide web” to describe that which exists beneath the ground and reaches up toward the heavens. This “web” has its own civilization and means of communication. It has an intricate and powerful relational network through root systems and fungus which causes forests to survive and thrive.

One tree begets another and brings on the next generation.
Trees birth other trees.
They nurture others, sending nutrients to ensure the vitality of other trees.
They help when others are in distress and even alert each other to danger.
They take care of their own, the ones they seed.
They cooperate instead of compete.
They form an interconnected system for their survival. That’s “the wood wide web.”

Consider the significance of this conduct, for it suggests that trees actually exemplify traits which parallel our best selves. We applaud these characteristics in human behavior. When we take care of one another, help each other to thrive, protect one another we work to protect the
future. Isn’t this what we seek of ourselves on these High Holy Days?

Can these observations of trees inspire our own behavior?

We have watched in horror as climate change has ravaged the Redwoods and Sequoias igniting them in flames. Many of us have seen theses colossal living structures. Many of us have stood beneath them and been humbled by the way they reach toward the sky. But the so many of these trees stand tall not because of deep root systems. In fact, their roots are superficial. The trees’ immense height is precarious and yet they are solidly embedded in the ground. How can that be?

The answer is remarkable. The roots of these gargantuan trees are so intertwined that they actually hold each other up. One stands tall because they are part of a vast system that physically links one to the other. A web of interconnectedness.

The trees have been busy modeling for humans for millennia. The forests can’t thrive without their root systems working in concert with one another, nurturing, nourishing, supporting, communicating with and protecting each other. The trees prosper together or the entire forest
fails. The ancients knew. They had to because their existence depended on it.

It is time to return to this basic principle of nature. The health of the trees, the forests, the oceans, the land, the air we share and our own bodies are tied together in a vast network rooted in the interdependence of us all.

But, we must think of the earth and its trees as part of our own bodies’ eco systems as well.

Survival of the fittest is not the only evolutional theory. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould posited the idea of “punctuated equilibrium”, holding that the entire species-over hundreds of centuries or longer -must find a way to survive together! Individual fate is bound up with the
dependence and cooperation of the entire species. Humanity’s endurance and the survival of the natural world depend on the same idea.

Climate change has the potential to destroy much more than we can fathom and we must do everything we can to alter the trajectory we are on. Days turning to night is not an abstract idea any longer as the west coast fires have shown. If we care about our own health and accept our interdependence on each other and with the natural world, we must be vigilant and proactive to protect one another, the trees and all of nature that surrounds us. We must all continually examine how we can care for the world, its vulnerable climate and be responsive to the needs of our fragile planet.

The Talmud(v) teaches that to save a life is to save the world. We cannot separate the health of our planet from the health of humanity. The pandemic has magnified our concern for the health of our bodies. We have had to decide what we would and wouldn’t do. We have adapted to wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing and endlessly washing our hands. We have changed our behaviors so that we would not put ourselves and those we love at risk.

We have also rallied around one another to ensure and strengthen our interconnectivity. The way people have gathered to support and lift one another up again and again is heartwarming and soul nurturing. Some Temple Israel monthly study groups changed to meet weekly instead of monthly to support even one member of the group facing an illness or difficult diagnosis while others did so to overcome isolation and loneliness brought about by these times. Our own TI Cares has made deliveries of honey jars to those who have lost a loved one in the past year. Check in phone calls from our members to those they may not known previously have transformed a friendly call into a friendship.

Interdependence impacts us all.

With one another and the earth.

Our lesson from the pandemic is not just an invitation to spend more time forest bathing and reflecting on how to become our best selves; it is a summons that our health and the future of the next generations rely on our actions today.

When Honi from the Talmudvi was asked while planting a carob tree why he would do such a thing since he would not be alive when it bore fruit, he responded as we all can. Trees were here when we came into the world, therefore for the good of one another, each of us must guarantee that they are here to provide in all the ways they do for those who come after us.

We enter this High Holy Day season on high alert ever mindful of what is happening around us. Our human and global ecosystems are facing enormous challenges. On this day of Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate Hayom Harat olam–On this day, the world was conceived. On this day,
all begins anew. The earth sings to us that everything is possible.

Let’s go ahead and engage in Shinrin Yoku, bathed in the embrace of the wood wide web to help us deal with the complexities of the world in this moment even as we work on ourselves. As we do, let our awareness of the crucial presence of trees on this planet earth grow even stronger.

Today, I do speak for the trees, but it is not only to save the trees, it is to save ourselves. As we confront the twin crises of our bodies’ health from Covid and our planet’s vitality, let us recognize how profoundly our wellbeing is dependent on the resolve and success of interconnectedness. May we come together even as we are apart to nourish and protect each other as the great trees have taught us. For the future of the whole world depends on us sustaining each other so that we all thrive well into the future.

So may it be. Amen

(i) Avot DeRabbi Natan 31b
(ii) Midrash Sifre 20:19
(iii) Deuteronomy 29: 19-20
(iv) Rashi and Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 29: 19-20
(v) Sanhedrin 37a
(vi) Ta’anit 23a

Some of the other resources that helped me think about the ideas in this sermon:
Falter, Bill McKibben
I and Thou, Martin Buber (his use of the tree and our relationship to it)
“In Praise of the Earth” poem by John O’Donohue
The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
The Overstory, Richard Powers
“When Equity Means Shade” The Boston Globe 8.24.20