Tu B’Shvat – HaRav Shlomo Aviner

We must not belittle the physical, but rather enhance it, bringing it to perfection. When we do so, we are following in God’s footsteps.

Planting Trees has Universal Value

by HaRav Shlomo Aviner

The Torah commands us to “follow God…and cling to Him.”¹ Our Sages ask: Is it really possible for a human being to “climb” up to heaven and “cling” to God, of whom it is written, “For God is an all-consuming fire?”² Rather, the Torah is telling us to emulate the middot (character traits) of God. When God first created the world, He was occupied with planting trees, as it is written, “And God planted a garden in Eden.”³ So, too, when you enter Eretz Yisrael, make sure you occupy yourselves first with planting trees, as it is written, “And when you have come to the land, and you have planted all manner of trees for food….” [Vayikra 19:23]⁴ Thus, God teaches us to plant trees by setting an example for us in the Garden of Eden. This is what the story of God planting a garden in Eden teaches us. This ideal is not necessarily only a Jewish one; it is universal. Human beings must make positive contributions to society and to the world at large: not only in agriculture, but also in science, industry, construction, and in establishing norms of productive interpersonal relationships. In other words, one must be involved in areas which bring benefit to mankind and to the world as a whole. Idleness indicates a flawed personality. It is for this reason that according to Halacha, chronic gamblers are unacceptable as witnesses in court.⁵

Attributing human characteristics to God

Some might ask such philosophical questions as: How did God plant trees? Isn’t this an anthropomorphic description? Whenever the Torah mentions God’s deeds, it is not actually describing Him, but rather talking to us, about us. We are completely incapable of understanding anything about God Himself or about His deeds, in and of themselves. All we can comprehend is how His deeds reveal themselves in the world to us.⁶ The same principle applies to social interaction. We can never objectively assess who another person really is; we can only describe how that person appears to us. All our relationships with the world and with one another are subjective and therefore biased. We cannot grasp the true essence of anything, but only our impressions of it. How much more so is this true of our comprehension of God and His deeds. All we can do is attempt to decipher the significance of God’s deeds for us. Therefore, when the Torah writes, for example, that God had mercy, it doesn’t mean that He felt the emotion that we call mercy. It merely means that from our perspective, we observed an act of mercy, which is a human quality. Feelings and deeds are attributed to God in order to teach human beings how to behave. Little children think in absolute terms.⁷ They think that what they understand is the unconditional, objective truth. The more mature we become, the more we understand how subjective our opinions are and how they represent only our conception of the world. We must help our children make this necessary transition. They must come to understand that we cannot describe God Himself, but only our subjective perception of Him. If this essential transition does not occur, then when they grow up, they are in danger of losing their faith in God, or of having a warped or misguided religious attitude. Similarly, when we read in the Torah that God planted a garden in Eden, we are not to interpret this literally but metaphorically: if we wish to cling to God’s ways, we, too, must be involved in planting. To “cling” to God does not mean to seek mystical experiences for ourselves, but rather to imitate His ways. Thus, when the Torah teaches us that God “planted a garden of trees,” we deduce that it is His will that the earth be settled. It is His desire that we not be idle, but rather occupy ourselves with planting, building and the like in order to make the world a better place to live in.

The value of being involved in the physical world

This concept is diametrically opposed to Christian philosophy.⁸ From a Christian perspective, the physical world is cursed; it is full of evil and suffering. Therefore, a priest who does not marry is to be admired, for why enlarge the numbers of poor, unfortunate creatures on this cursed earth? Judaism believes the opposite: this world is the “Garden of Eden,”⁹ at least in potential and in essence. If it is not actually so today, that is the fault of mankind. We have spoiled it, but we can also restore the world and make it once again into a Garden of Eden. God, by planting a garden, teaches us that we must not develop only the spiritual world by studying Torah exclusively; rather, we must concurrently work at perfecting the material world. We must not belittle the physical, but rather enhance it, bringing it to perfection. When we do so, we are following in God’s footsteps. He made the heavens and the earth, created light, separated the dry land from the water, and established all the laws of nature. Our involvement with worldly matters should not be seen as a mere by-product of the need to earn a living (which is, in itself, a value). Rather, this occupation with the world is actually a lofty goal, provided that involvement with mundane concerns includes within it a desire to benefit the world. In every field, there are people whose achievements do not come from a desire to become famous, but rather from a sincere wish to contribute to society – for example, those who work to advance science or technology so that other people can live better lives. Another example is businessmen who are not interested only in their personal profit, but also in supplying goods based on consumer needs.¹⁰ So, too, the desire to plant trees reveals a wish to benefit others. The story is told of an aged man whom the Roman emperor found planting trees. The emperor asked him, “At your age, why are you planting? Do you really think you’ll live to enjoy the fruit of these trees?” The old man answered, “If I do not live to enjoy the fruit, my children will!”¹¹ Planting trees, then, is a reflection of our idealism and holiness, for it is walking in the ways of God.¹² Just as God created the world and abolished chaos by establishing the laws of nature, so do we continue to bring order into chaos and to improve that which is still imperfect – and we are far from completing the job.¹³ Thus, the desire to plant is an expression of man’s inner desire to spread goodness and improve the world.

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