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Home » Environment, Miscellaneous, Sh'lach L'chah, Tu B'shvat

Shlach: What I Learned From A Tree

Submitted by on June 12, 2011 – 4:46 amNo Comment | 3,386 views

The Holy Tree

Oh, the tales trees could tell if only trees could tell tales.

There is a large tree in my backyard under whose branches many little dramas have played out. Many a toddler has crawled under its branches, many a back has leaned against its trunk, over the years the tree has provided comfort and haven to countless people. I gaze up at it and marvel at its secrets. More than its secrets I reflect on its lessons. We humans like to plant trees, but as we tend and care for them we ought to also reflect on what can we learn from them.

When Moses instructed the spies to scout the Holy Land he directed them to look for trees. (1) Our sages taught that he wasn’t referring only to physical trees, he spoke also of metaphoric trees – the righteous, whose piety protects us from harm as trees protect us from the sun. (2) One wonders why  Moses chose the metaphor of trees and what message hides behind this metaphor?


In Biblical Israel there were three cities set aside for refuge. One who murdered without intention was directed to flee to one of these cities. The moment they entered the city they were protected from the victim’s family’s quest for retribution. Our sages taught that when approaching the city, the murderer was protected from when he set foot under the tree branches extending beyond the city’s limit provided the trunk was planted within the city. (3)

Trees expand the reach of refuge. Under its branches we are safe. In a similar vein, the virtue of the righteous, like a tree, protects the country. Though many citizens might be lacking in piety the entire country is protected so long as they are under the branches or influence of the pious few.


In the Torah there is a concept called Tumah –ritual impurity. There are various ways in which such impurity is contracted, one of which is through sharing a common ceiling. If a dead body is set down under a tree anyone who ducks under its  branches contracts the impurity. (4)

If this is true of impurity, it is a priori true of positive energy. People of good cheer, holiness and generosity inspire all who share the shade of their tree. It is no wonder that the prophetess Deborah chose to teach Torah under the branches of a palm tree. (5) The tree is a haven, an oasis of unity that welcomes all. The righteous and the sinner, the scholarly and the ignoramus, all sit under the shade of a single tree. In its shadow we all unite. Under its influence we are at home.what I learned from a tree innerstream

Good Cheer

Trees do more than create oases of shade, trees improve the environment by absorbing carbon-dioxide and expelling oxygen. We must do the same. It is not sufficient to plant a tree and invite the public to gather under its branches. If the tree’s environment is not inviting, the public won’t feel welcome.

We too must exude happiness, optimism, confidence and good cheer. Just as a little light expels much darkness so does a little cheer melt negativity and insecurity. The pious  are like trees because they create an atmosphere filled with good cheer and an environment focused on positive reinforcement.


In California, million dollar homes are built on hilltops overlooking the ocean. The slopes are precarious because they are bare and every rainstorm brings fear of mudslides. The solution is to plant trees. Their roots furrow into the ground and create interlocking webs of firm foundation. The more mature and numerous the trees, the more they secure the hilltop.

When inviting our friends under our welcoming tree we must remember that more than anything, they seek stability. Life is is a web of interlocking dilemmas, every question leads to another question and every option has pros and cons. It is easy to lose our way in this labyrinth of confusion and despair of finding our way out.

This is what we seek in true leaders and friends. When we turn to them for guidance we want them to cut through the confusion and reach the heart of the matter. We are not seeking validation of our confused feelings, we seek an objective answer that tells us right from wrong.

The Torah’s value system is timeless and stable. Under the branches of our tree we must be willing to share its values, its principles and its firm foundation.


Trees are resilient. No matter how cold the winter, the next spring they bloom again. All it takes is a little sunshine and some rainfall. We humans are the same. No matter how bitter and downtrodden our visitors might be, a little empathy and love will melt the crust of their bitter hearts. The human spirit is resilient. Even if they have never experienced love, once they bask in its glow they will respond in kind.

Chain Reaction

One last thought about trees is that you never know where one might pop up. You can plant a tree in the middle of your yard, but its roots will spread underground. Once they take root, they have a life of their own and no one can predict where they might pop up. A stubborn root might break through your foundation and a tree might pop up in your living room.

The same is true of humans. Once we invite our fellow to bask in the serenity and stability of our tree we can never predict who else we might touch. Our reach can extend across the world. Decades from now you might be approached by a Jew from a distant island, who read something, written by someone, who was taught by someone, influenced by you.

Never underestimate the power of a single act of kindness or a single moment of teaching. Always be ready to create a tree. A stable, warm and uplifting environment where visitors might find a helping hand, a listening ear or the sympathetic heart of a tender soul.

It helps the person you talk to and it might help someone else down the line.

Who knows? That someone might even turn out to be you!


  1. Numbers 13:20.
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 15a.
  3. Maimonides, Hichos Rotzeach Ushmiras Nafesh, 8:11.
  4. Maimonides, Hilchos Tumas Hames, 12 -13.
  5. Judges I, 4:5.

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