Trees occupy a special place in Jewish thought and practice. In the beginning, God places the Tree of Knowledge in the center of the Garden of Eden. The book of Proverbs famously describes Torah as a Tree of Life and the Midrash teaches that, indeed, “the life of humanity is from the tree.” The Kabbalists employ the tree as a metaphor for the diverse aspects of both the human psyche and the Divine nature. It is no wonder, then, our tradition celebrates the New Year of the Trees every Tu B’Shevat.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, begins: “God appeared to Abraham beneath the great oaks of Mamre.” We should not be surprised that the Holy One becomes manifest in a grove of tall trees—one need only look up from the base of a redwood, sequoia, or even an old growth Idaho ponderosa pine to feel the awe that these ancient, majestic and holy creatures inspire in the human heart and soul.
What’s even more amazing is that humans and trees dearly need one another. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; trees do just the opposite. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes:
“We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out: we breathe each other into life.” Waskow adds: God’s most sacred name, YHVH, is, in its essence, the sound of breathing. Abraham’s encounter with the Holy One beneath the oaks of Mamre is renewed each and every moment of each and every day, in the Interbreathing of Life that spells out the Divine Name in the miraculous, loving exchange between lungs and leaves.
Today, when climate change poses an existential threat to life as we know it, perhaps no act is holier than planting a tree. It embodies hope for the future—and creates the breath that might yet sustain us through it.
May we, too, find God in and amongst the trees.