Is Man a Tree of the Field? - שופטים

Friday, 21 August, 2020 - 4:00 pm

Is Man a Tree of the Field?

“Man is the tree of the field” says the Torah in order to explain why we should not cut down a fruit bearing tree. But does a tree capture the essence of man? 

The Midrash states that man is a microcosm of the entire world. The Kabbalah explains that human emotions are likened to trees and human intelligence is likened to the animal kingdom. Just as a seed grows into a full grown majestic tree, so too, human emotions grow and mature over time. A child loves things that are small and immature, as the child grows, his love grows too. He desires things that are more expensive and more valuable. 

A tree is stationary. While it grows upward it is rooted in one place and cannot uproot itself and implant itself elsewhere. Human emotions are similar, while one’e emotions evolve, the basic emotional makeup of a person remains the same. Some people are more inclined to love, others to anger, some to compassion, others to jealousy. 

The human mind, however, is likened to a living animal. The animal is not planted in one place. An animal can travel great distances and explore great expanses. The human mind, too, can travel great expanses. The human mind is objective and can explore perspectives very different from its own. The emotions are centered in one place, they are chiefly concerned with how the self feels, and all stimuli is filtered through the lens of the question: “how does this make me feel”. The mind, by contrast, is able to escape the trappings of self, transcend the familiar perspective of one’e own inclinations and explore ideas foreign to his native environment. 

If the tree represents subjective emotion and the animal represents the objective mind, why does the Torah tell us that man is a tree of the field, implying that the uniqueness of man is something other than his intelligence? 

The ability to think abstractly is unique to the human being. Yet abstract thought per se is not the superiority of man. Yes, humanity has made great leaps forward in developing advanced sciences, culture and philosophy. We have uncovered distant galaxies and subatomic particles. We have landed man on the moon and a rover on mars. Impressive indeed. But does abstract intelligence alone make us better, kinder, more compassionate people?

The Torah is telling us that the greatest achievement of man is when abstract thinking affects his emotions, When his capacity to be objective allows him to see the needs of others and to relate to them with human emotion. Man is the tree of the field, because abstract knowledge is valuable only to the extent that it affects the person we are. A man is a tree, because the greatest achievement of a person is when his knowledge makes him into a mentch.   

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos,  Shoftim vol. 4.  

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