Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Can You Learn from a Tree?: Parashat Shelach

Jewish tradition reminds us that we can often find wisdom in the most unlikely of places.  Parents and teachers and learn from students and insiders and learn from outsiders.  In this week's parasha, knowledge comes from an even more unlikely source: trees.  When Moses sends out the spies to survey the land of Israel, he asks specific questions about vegetation: (Numbers 13:20)

20. What is the soil like is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not? You shall be courageous and take from the fruit of the land." It was the season when the first grapes begin to ripen.

כ. וּמָה הָאָרֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָה הִוא אִם רָזָה הֲיֵשׁ בָּהּ עֵץ אִם אַיִן וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ וְהַיָּמִים יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים:

Why is Moses so interested in trees?  On the most basic level it is good to know how well the land can feed the Israelites.  It's also good to know the terrain to see if the troops will be able to find cover.  However, according many commentators, there are additional reasons why trees are so important to our leader.

Rashi,drawing upon the Talmud, tells us that we can learn a great deal about a society from its trees:

does it have trees: Heb. הִיֵשׁ בָּהּ עֵץ, lit,. does it have a tree. Does it have a worthy man who will protect them with his merit. - [B.B. 15a]
היש בה עץ: אם יש בהם אדם כשר שיגין עליהם בזכותו:

If a society has trees that are thriving, it shows others that there are people of merit that care for them.  If a land is desolate, barren, and destroyed, it tells us something about the people who live there.  In such a society, individuals are not responsible, compassionate, or courageous enough to protect their children's future.  They allow their habitat to be ransacked for short term gain or do it themselves.  According to our sages, you can tell a lot about a people by how they keep house and the value they put in the future.

Rabbi Hayyim Jacob Blum wrote a super commentary on Rashi's words in the 1960s and derives further wisdom from the parasha.  In his work, Parchai Rashi (blooms of Rashi), he poses a question to Rashi, "If a person wanted to see whether a community had merit, wouldn't he look in the houses of study and prayer?"  Bloom responds that if there is a truly righteous man in the study house, his influence will spread to the streets, the orchards, and the fields.  True goodness spreads beyond the private realm of the individual -- it inspires others and makes the entire world a more righteous place.

There are two important things that I think we can learn from this parasha and its interpreters:

1) If you want to evaluate the merit of a society, do not listen to what representatives say, but rather look to their terrain.  Is it preserved, tended to, and cared for?  Does this society cut down their trees for wars or the cheap extraction of natural resources?  Does this society install mines on its most beautiful land, or create national parks?  Societies do have a collective character, their values can be discerned, and this knowledge should affect how we interact with them.

2) If a person is meritorious, her influence will spread beyond the walls of the beit midrash or synagogue.  While these places cultivate leadership and goodness, a person's quality can only be evaluated outside of the door.  People of faith often act one way in their houses of worship and another way in the stores or on the streets.  Individuals learned in Torah often bring disgrace to the Jewish community.  When Jewish learning and prayer is truly effective, it takes hold of your soul, and stays with you even as you exit the synagogue.  This learning leads to a light that illumines your entire community and inspires others to pursue mitzvot with seriousness.  

This week, may we all focus on cultivating our gardens -- physical and spiritual -- to increase the merit in our world, and make it verdant and bright for future generations.

Shabbat Shalom!