Rabbi’s Corner

Roots in heaven: the upside down tree

Rabbi Israel Becker

Shema Yisroel, Listen Israel!” are the first words uttered by the Kohane, or Jewish priest, in his inspirational speech to the soldiers of Israel before going into battle (Deuteronomy 20:2-3). The purpose of these words was to capture each soldier’s attention.

The great medieval French Torah commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), explains that with these opening words, the Kohane was generating a message, “Don’t be afraid, G-d will be with you. Even if the only mitzvah that you observe is saying the Shema, you are worthy of G-d’s protection.” One might ask, if the Kohane’s role is to reduce the insecurity of the soldier, how is this accomplished? After all, there are 613 commandments the Jew is obligated to perform. This soldier examines his merit list and realizes he is messing up 612 of the 613. The Kohane says to him, “It is OK, don’t worry. You’re doing great; one out of 613 is just fine.” Why doesn’t the soldier look at the Kohane with disbelief? How can he proceed into battle with confidence when his mitzvah observance score is .16 percent (1/613)?

The answer to this question touches the very core of Judaism. In Deuteronomy 20:19, it is taught that we are forbidden to cut down a fruit tree. “For from it you will eat and do not cut it down, for man is the tree of the field.” What does this verse mean? The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, 1526-1609) explains that there is a magnificent connection between man and a tree. He writes that man is indeed like a tree. His body is like the tree trunk and his limbs are like the branches. But, he is an “upside down tree.” The tree has its roots in the ground while man has his roots in heaven. The tree’s nourishment comes from the earth; man’s nourishment comes from his neshama, his G-d given soul. Just as the “earth tree” produces fruit, so too does the “man tree” produce fruit: the mitzvot. Each mitzvah is considered another fruit on the “man tree.” The Talmud uses this metaphor in reference to mitzvot, saying, “These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world.” Sometimes one can look at a fruit tree and see no sign of productivity and wonder if this tree is really alive. But then, if one looks at it again and finds even one lone fruit, he would know that this tree is vibrant, and that there is indeed hope for more fruit to come. That’s why the Kohane can rightfully inspire even the soldier who is in the .16 percentile. He is telling him, “You’re OK with G-d because you have shown G-d that you can grow.”

The Maharal teaches that just as fruit is the sign of productivity for the “earth tree” so are mitzvot the sign of productivity for the “man tree.” G-d looks at the “man tree” lovingly and when he sees one fruit he knows that there is more to come. Let us enjoy a fruitful High Holiday season as we add more mitzvah fruit to our own tree, one by one.