Rabbi's Message - January 2023
Announcing Trees of Life!
One of the most special verses that was committed to memory early on in my Judaic studies was the verse that appears at the end of the Torah service, as we are putting the scrolls back into the ark: “Etz Chaim Hi.” This section is deemed so important that in our Siddur Lev Shalem, it appears in boldface. It’s preceded by a verse where the arrow is that you don’t even always hear, but which I always remember to do: “I have given you a precious inheritance: do not forsake my teaching.” Then, we have the beautiful verses in Hebrew, for which I’ll share the translation in English here: “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and all who hold onto it are blessed. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” Then the final verse is in essence a call to action: “Turn us toward you, Adonai, and we will return to you; make our days seem fresh, as they once were.” What beautiful thoughts expressed in poetic verses! Let’s explore some aspects of them briefly.
The analogy our Torah being likened to a tree is preceded by an alert designed to get our attention: We have something very valuable and special here, and we are enjoined to not forsake it, meaning not to ignore it, or turn away from it. We now know and anticipate that we’re going to hear something very unique: The ways of life, bringing many blessings, are like a tree to us; just as you need to reach out and grasp the branches of a tree in order to climb and ascend it, so also does learning require a degree of effort, yet rendering that effort will bring many blessings in its wake as a natural consequence of following its paths and directives. Those directives are designed to help us live with honor and with dignity, creating a just, moral, ethical, and compassionate society, as long as we remain faithful and true to its essential precepts. Just as trees renew and regenerate themselves at this season, even though all of the processes may not be apparent to the naked eye, so we too can renew and regenerate ourselves at each and every moment, and thereby create within ourselves feelings of renewal, strength, restored vigor, and a rekindled youthful-like hope yearning towards a better future.
This season of the year, following Chanukkah, is always one of great opportunity for renewal. In the spirit of rededication and bravery of the Maccabees, we can incorporate that spirit, and even combine it with the secular fun of “New Year’s Resolutions.” If we are sensitive to its beauty and mysteries, the world of nature around us, alluded to above, can aid us if we actively appreciate its power and consciously decide to combine its majesties with the underlying currents of our own souls. Ratherthantakingtheexamplefromthebearswhohibernateduringthis season (conserving their energies for the spring and summer yet again though), the analogy of the deciduous trees losing their leaves has always had great meaning for me. As the sap in the trees descends, and the leaves fall down, key nutrients are always moving up and down within the bark layers of the trees and the root system of the trees. To the casual observer, the system may seem static, with nothing happening; however, to the biologist, constant processes are in place and in a state of dynamic flow, leading later on to the outward manifestation of growth, renewal, blossoming, flowering, and the yielding of fruits. If the current “hidden” processes did not occur, none of the later results could either.
Thus, to apply this to our Jewish context, what are your updated “Jewish new year resolutions?” Are we still on track from those more formally created hopes and resolutions going back to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? What new paths are we taking in our journey of increasing in Jewish learning, of strengthening our synagogue through greater involvement, and of continuing in our mission of “being a light unto the nations?” For myself, this time in the year has always represented a second chance; feeling the greater themes of the “spirit of the season”, how can we maximize that feeling and bring increased levels of blessings into our lives and into the lives of those around us?
To that end, I’m hereby announcing a mini “Tree of Life Program with the Rabbi”: anytime between the hours roughly of 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or even a Friday, and it’s not raining, if you’d like to combine the mitzvah of taking care of your health and body (yes, it’s a mitzvah! – “Shmirat HaGuf”) while simultaneously marveling in the trees around us with all of their symbolic meaning as outlined above, along with talking about your Jewish life with the synagogue (or anything else), just make a call into our office, if possible, in advance, and let me know around when you’ll be coming. We’ll plan to take a lap or two or three around the perimeter of this beautiful complex (it’s about 1⁄4 mile around) and have a great time in the process! If it’s difficult to walk, feel free to come in anyway, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing you!
In the meantime, appreciate and be inspired by the trees!
-Rabbi David Barnett