21/22 Aug: Shofetim :Shabbat comes in 7:57 pm, ends 9:00 pm
Parashat Shofetim: Man is a Tree of the Field
When my grandmother arrived in England in 1960, it was midwinter. She was faced for the first time with leafless trees, because the trees of her girlhood in Singapore were evergreens. The sight of these seemingly lifeless trees was frightening to my grandmother, who assumed that there had been a great fire. It’s a story that’s often told with a smile in my family.
I’m thinking of this story this week, because Parashat Shofetim gives us an interesting and strange rule about trees: when we engage in war, we must not destroy fruit-bearing trees. The reasoning for this is given in the strange phrase: ki ha-adam eitz ha-sadeh. Depending on how we parse the sentence, this could be understood in two opposing ways. We could read it as: ‘Is the tree of the field a man?’ This would highlight our differences; wars are fought between people, not between men and trees. On the other hand, it could be translated as: ‘For man is a tree of the field.’ Instead of telling us how trees are not men, this could instead be reminding us of our similarities and interdependence.
Rabbi Mordechai Greenberg suggests that it is no calendrical coincidence that we read Parashat Shofetim at the beginning of the month of Elul, the beginning of the season of repentance. The Torah reminds us that man is a tree of the field because of the same lesson that my grandmother learnt in the winter of 1960: trees, like people, go through a yearly cycle. We sometimes lose our spiritual leaves – for Rabbi Greenberg, this is the despair of Tisha B’Av – but we can burst forth with life again.
May this prove to be a fruitful Elul.
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman