R Barry Kornblau / The large tree in front of my house went down last night. The mighty winds of the great storm Sandy beat relentlessly upon it, bowing it ever further down until it finally came to rest on a neighbor’s lawn across the street. As I stood outside watching it collapse in slow-motion (our concrete sidewalk was pinning down its roots), my mind and heart were divided. Mostly, of course, they were with with the millions who had lost electricity, their homes, and their lives. At the same time, a personal sadness also overtook me and my eyes moistened with tears. The sadness wasn’t just because a few days ago, that tree had supported – as it has for many years – a pinata to delight my kids and their friends at a birthday party. Rather, for a long time now, I have always looked up to, and upon, trees as more majestic denizens of our planet than we humans. They beautify our world, live longer than we do, and are powerful and massive enough to uproot concrete sidewalks with their thirsty roots, and to destroy our cars, our houses, and even our lives with their massive branches. They dwarf us, shade us, and even outnumber us on our shared home, Earth, by roughly 60:1. We and trees even depend directly upon one another to live: we are sustained by inhaling the waste product they exhale (oxygen), and they are sustained by inhaling the waste product we exhale (carbon dioxide).

Elegy for a Tree

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Guest post by R. Barry Kornblau

R. Barry Kornblau serves as rabbi of Young Israel of Hollis Hills – Windsor Park in Queens, NY and as Director of Member Services at the Rabbinical Council of America.

The large tree in front of my house went down last night. The mighty winds of the great storm Sandy beat relentlessly upon it, bowing it ever further down until it finally came to rest on a neighbor’s lawn across the street. As I stood outside watching it collapse in slow-motion (our concrete sidewalk was pinning down its roots), my mind and heart were divided. Mostly, of course, they were with with the millions who had lost electricity, their homes, and their lives. At the same time, a personal sadness also overtook me and my eyes moistened with tears.

The sadness wasn’t just because a few days ago, that tree had supported – as it has for many years – a pinata to delight my kids and their friends at a birthday party. Rather, for a long time now, I have always looked up to, and upon, trees as more majestic denizens of our planet than we humans. They beautify our world, live longer than we do, and are powerful and massive enough to uproot concrete sidewalks with their thirsty roots, and to destroy our cars, our houses, and even our lives with their massive branches. They dwarf us, shade us, and even outnumber us on our shared home, Earth, by roughly 60:1. We and trees even depend directly upon one another to live: we are sustained by inhaling the waste product they exhale (oxygen), and they are sustained by inhaling the waste product we exhale (carbon dioxide). Likening trees and humans to one another in a single phrase (Deut. 20:19), the Torah highlights that intimate relationship. Detailing the laws of besieging an enemy city, that verse further prohibits us from destroying a fruit tree for, as R. Bachaye puts it, “a blessing is in it.” Even where human lives are expendable, trees’ lives are not.

In the Garden of Eden, one tree tantalized Adam and Eve with its promise of eternal life while a second tempted them to become like God, knowing good and evil. Trees symbolize and embody eternity and wisdom, prompting the wisest of men to remind us (Prov. 3:18) that the Torah’s eternal wisdom is “a tree of life to those who hold fast to it.”

In his book, A Tzaddik in Our Time, R. Simcha Raz relates the following story about R. Aryeh Levin zt”l and R. Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, zt”l:

I [R. Levin] recall the early days, from 1905 onward, when it was granted to me with God’s kindness to ascend to the holy land, and I arrived at Jaffa. There I first went to visit our great master, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who received me with good cheer, as was his sacred custom to receive all people. We chatted together on various Torah topics. After an early minchah, he went out, as was his hallowed custom, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts. I went along. On the way I plucked a twig or flower. Our great master was taken aback when he saw this. He told me gently:

“Believe me — in all my days, I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner message in its silence. Every creature utters its song (of praise of the Creator).”

Those words, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply on my heart. From that time on, I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for all things.

And so too, should this story, about two men with pure and holy hearts, engrave itself deeply upon our hearts, strengthening our sense of compassion for all things: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are upon all His works.” (Ps. 145:9). In this way, we shall speed the day when all nations will declare “that the Lord reigns” (Ps. 96:12) and we will easily hear when “the trees of the field will burst forth in joyful song” (ibid, v. 12).

In the meantime, though, my tasks – and those of others who have lost trees in this astonishing storm – are simpler. Most importantly, to pray and to render practical aid, to the extent we can, to those requiring immediate succor from the storm. And then, to clear away the great carcass blocking our street; to repair our torn sidewalk and lawn; and, most importantly, to replant. As I stood outside inspecting the damage, my neighbor told me that her magnificent sidewalk tree had came down in a storm thirty years ago, but that they had replanted right away. Their new tree is strong in the wind and looks lovely all year round to boot. An investment that pays such rich dividends, decade after decade – sounds like a wise move to me.

About Barry Kornblau

Rabbi Barry Kornblau serves as rabbi of Young Israel of Hollis Hills - Windsor Park in Queens, NY and as Director of Member Services at the Rabbinical Council of America. Opinions expressed are his own.

15 comments

  1. “Rather, for a long time now, I have always looked up to, and upon, trees as more majestic denizens of our planet than we humans.”

    – Very nice piece. However – for all that nature is – I don’t think we should ever lose sight of who is the most prime, majestic, denizen of the planet: Man.

  2. TI — seems the whales may be having a laugh about that: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4296591,00.html 🙂

  3. TI wrote:

    “Very nice piece. However – for all that nature is – I don’t think we should ever lose sight of who is the most prime, majestic, denizen of the planet: Man.”

    Actually-as R R Y Eisenmann has pointed out in his most current Short Vort, the events of the last few days should remind us that even majestic man has limitations and should never think that what some call Mother Nature and what we call Derech HaTeva is always subject to our control.

  4. Of course I agree that Nature is not always subject to our control. And that man has limitations.

    I liked the post. I just think it is going too far to position trees/nature above man.

  5. TI, as the great philosopher Douglas Adams once observed:

    “Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much…the wheel, New York, wars and so on…while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man…for precisely the same reason.”

    One could make a similar point about trees.

  6. “even outnumber us on our shared home, Earth, by roughly 60:1”

    Ants outnumber us by roughly a million to one. Which is majestic in its own way…

  7. ” the events of the last few days should remind us that even majestic man has limitations and should never think that what some call Mother Nature and what we call Derech HaTeva is always subject to our control.”

    True-but as a society we must be careful not to increase the odds of catastrophic weather events-similar to everything is subject to razon hashem but we don’t recommend that people smoke etc.

  8. “As I stood outside inspecting the damage, my neighbor told me that her magnificent sidewalk tree had came down in a storm thirty years ago, but that they had replanted right away. Their new tree is strong in the wind and looks lovely all year round to boot.”

    But eventually that tree will come down. probably at the most inopportune time a storm and depending on how it falls can be a killer or at least a big destructive force. One has to be careful of what trees one plants where-where I live there is a tree code what one is permitted to plant-new trees can’t be those gigantic ones. Sadly there are many old ones remaining and even more it isan ordinance often ignored and people don’t care-they like their privacy.

  9. ” However – for all that nature is – I don’t think we should ever lose sight of who is the most prime, majestic, denizen of the planet: Man”

    Agreed!! But one must be concerned about externalities-thus it is not legitimate to say one just maximizes ones economic production wo worrying about impacts on health, welfare or even possibilities of catastrophic weather events. There are trade offs that must be considered in a cost benefit analysis.

  10. Barry Kornblau

    Thanks to all for the discussion!

    Mycroft – Your last comment prompted me to look at http://www.nycgovparks.org/permits/trees/standards.pdf (I live in Queens) which, towards its end, lists a variety of permissible trees and their mature heights but doesn’t restrict tree height per se; interesting. Maybe the the city incorporates your concern in its other rules therein about minimum distances from the newly planted tree to other homes, wires, trees, wires, driveways, etc.

    Barry Kornblau

  11. “Mycroft – Your last comment prompted me to look at http://www.nycgovparks.org/permits/trees/standards.pdf (I live in Queens) which, towards its end, lists a variety of permissible trees and their mature heights but doesn’t restrict tree height per se; interesting. Maybe the the city incorporates your concern in its other rules therein about minimum distances from the newly planted tree to other homes, wires, trees, wires, driveways, etc.

    Barry Kornblau”

    Rabbi Kornblau:
    I don’t live in NYC-my town also lists permissible trees and mature heights. My guess as to why they don’t restrict heights per se is an enforcement question. It is much easier to enforce actions than results.
    Thanks writing an interesting article. I hope to see more in the future.

  12. Trees are nice to discuss and mourn, but IMO, there are families in our communities whose homes were wiped out and will need the help of all of us to get back on their feet. This link deserves our support.https://www.achiezer.org/donate.php?event=sandy&utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzEmail&utm_content=742913&utm_campaign=0 KGH’s shuls this Shabbos were full of familiar faces who either grew up here and/or once lived here and had moved to the Five Towns., Jamaica Estates, Teaneck and other locales, and whose homes had been without power. Yes-we have a gas shortage and the few stations that are open have very long lines.

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