Embodying the Tree of Life

Rosh Hashanah 5782

Have you ever known a special tree? A spreading live oak or bay laurel, a towering redwood or pine, a great old oak or a gnarled apple tree? A tree whose leaves or needles sheltered you, whose trunk supported you, whose branches begged to be climbed, a tree that befriended you, comforted you, received your joys and sorrows and prayers? 

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me….

wrote the poet Robert Frost. If you have known such a tree, then you know something of the great life-giving wisdom of trees, with their complex root systems communicating underground, through the mycelial network. You know why the great, mythic Tree of Life is a symbol for rebirth, renewal, and resource in so many cultures. 

Tonight, as we enter a new year, a year of shmitah, a year of release and rest for the land and for our tired hearts, we are asking, how does this great Tree live inside us and we within it? How does it appear, disappear, and reemerge in different forms in our Jewish mythic, mystic tradition? How does it nourish and exhort us? What is it asking us to learn? to bring forth into the world?

We begin in Oneness. A mashal, a parable…. Once upon a time, so the Wise Ones tell us, this Earth was a lush Garden, and at its center stood a magnificent Tree. Its roots penetrated deep into the earth and drank from the four great rivers that issued forth from and watered the Garden, while its branches spread outward, shading every nook and cranny, and arched upward, touching the heavens. The Tree absorbed the light of the sun by day and bathed in the glow of the moon and the sparkle of more distant stars by night. It produced fruit of every variety—juicy oranges, fragrant apples, tart lemons, many-seeded pomegranates, and plump figs, to name just a few. 

The Tree of Life, they called it, Etz Hayyim. Its very leaves breathed life into the sun-drenched, moon-kissed Garden. It sheltered many creatures, including the one tasked with naming and caring for the others––the one formed from Earth, the one called adam. “From this tree you are not to harvest,” decreed the Mystery. “She is the Tree of Oneness. Contemplate her, rest in her shade, inhale the fragrance of her leaves, delight in the varied shapes and colors of her fruit and eat what falls to the Earth, lean against her solidness, caress her bark. But do not pick, categorize, or analyze. Don’t ask too many questions!”

Now, though the Mystery had created adam in its own image and likeness, it had not fully grokked that, from the very beginning, adam carried within the seed of Two-ness, which by another name might be called “duplicity,” and a restless mind, which by another name could be termed “curiosity.” And so adam was destined to pick the fruits, to name and categorize them, and to learn, with great delight, that from each seed a different kind of tree may grow. From the One Tree, many! Just pick and plant and water and eat! And, endlessly resourceful, adam learned also to smoke the leaves, and to chop the wood and build settees, porch swings, and backyard fences. “Good fences make good neighbors,” that same poet noted.

And so the great Tree was split and cut and sold down the river, and the Knowledge of orange vs. apple, good vs. bad, ripe vs. rotten, right vs. wrong, love vs. hate, black vs. white, you vs. me, replaced the Wisdom of many-fruited, multi-colored Oneness. And so was born the religion of difference and exile, jealousy and competition, wreckage and breakage, war and suffering—or so the story goes.

Was this a failure of understanding? A failure of vision? Or perhaps just the nature of embodied life, how it was destined to be? Outside the sacred Garden now, humans proliferated and found they needed words to communicate across the distances that separated them. No longer were the vibratory hum and buzz of grasses and bees, the heartbeats shared with the birds and other animals sufficient for communication. Words, spoken and then written, soon became necessary for business—impressed into clay or inked onto parchment. Contractual words, sometimes benevolent, sometimes harsh and punishing––reminders of how to bridge the in-betweens: “v’ahavta l’reyakhah kamokha: Remember, love your fellow beings, for they are not simply like yourself, they are yourself.” But they—we—had forgotten.

And so there came to be a Torah, a contract, a brit, a written document laying out a contractual agreement between human beings and the Mystery, and our ancestors called it the Etz Hayyim, the Tree of Life. God’s blueprint for Creation, the Sages said.

She is a Tree of Life

more precious than gold

Hold her in your arms

and you will understand

Etz Hayyim hi––

Her roots are deep and wide

Her branches filled with light

And all her pathways are…

peace. Netivot Shalom. Wholeness. Shleymut. Torah became for us a portable Tree of Life, a locus where Oneness could be remembered and reconstituted, fenced in, so to speak, a way back to the Garden––or so they hoped.

Down through the ages, with each wave of suffering, shattering, and dispersal, a new story would emerge, a new version of the great mythic Tree, in whose shade the exiles longed to rest, whose fruit the scattered ones dreamed of tasting—new stories to somehow hold and heal the splits and rips and tears in the fabric of Oneness, which now more and more impaired humans’ ability to tend their earthly gardens, much less to remember at all the Original Garden, with the One Tree at its center.

In an early mystical work, the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation, the Indivisible Creator carves out the universe with three tools—with numbers, the ten s’firot; with letters, the twenty-two otiot; and with consciousness. A thousand years later, the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, described these same sefirot as vessels, into which the Infinite funnels a thin stream of its Boundlessness—a new, quantum Tree of Life, constituted of Divine qualities. But the vessels, too weak to hold the liquid light, shatter, scattering shards of divinity throughout the cosmos, sparks now hidden among the husks and shells of materiality. The Tree is splintered. In a world of brokenness it becomes our spiritual task to gather the shards and splinters and to somehow piece the Tree back together. In a world of brokenness, the life of the Spirit becomes a day by day, moment by moment, breath by breath affair. 

Aleinu…it is up to us. With song and dance, with planting and chanting, with gratitude and tears, with praise and with reverence, with study and with silence, with compassionate action—teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah—we seek to reconstitute the wisdom of the ancients, of the shamans and the mystics and the healers and all those who have lived in loving balance with the Earth, to tend once again the Divine Garden, Shekhinah Herself, whose heart is the Tree of Life. Can you recall, somewhere in the far recesses of your memory, your imagination, how it was to sit in the shade of the great Tree of Life, the circle of dark and light, where there is no other, no you and he, you and she, you and them, where all are of the One? 

To embody a thing is not simply to study, to know, to witness it, but to become it–to fully inhabit that which we already are. And isn’t that the essence of Teshuvah? We climb the branches of the Tree, the Ladder of Return, s’firah by s’firah––now humble, now strong, now generous, now firm, now efforting, now submitting, now active, now at rest––learning as we climb, that we’re part of a Whole we cannot see or wholly know or fathom, that we each already are a Tree of Life, birthed from the Sea of Divine Presence that waters our roots. 

In our American lives this past year, we experienced a brief bit of respite, a change of leadership, the hope of science and big pharma beating back the virus with a vaccine. Yet black and brown people are still hunted down in cities and at borders, stripped of basic human rights, excluded from full citizenship. And the earth is still warming, the weather is wildly extreme, species continue to go extinct at alarming rates, and people are at war. Wave upon wave of crisis looms, as a new story struggles to emerge from the ashes of our forests, the dry basins of our reservoirs, and the ruins of our democratic institutions. 

To embody the Tree of Life in our dire times—these times in which the entire project of Life’s continuity on Earth feels endangered—entails a mass Teshuvah of epic proportions. We are being asked, I believe, to integrate all the stories, to reclaim each incarnation of the sacred Tree—the Oneness at the center of the Garden, the living Torah, the sacred ladder of the Sefirot—to embody all these levels of Treeness, as we seek to heal our own selves, our ruptured communities, and our embattled Gaia Herself. 

And so, in this year of shmitah––of release and return, when we’re told to stop extracting from and exploiting the Earth and to simply entrust ourselves to the Tree of Life, that her bounty will nourish us––it becomes ever more urgent to nurture and support one another, to embody those truths that the founders of this nation knew to be “self-evident” but didn’t know how to implement. Ever more imperative is the need to keep our eyes on the pole star; to see beyond the brokenness; to “place the Creator on its foundation” as our mystics teach; to return to Center with the faith that it will hold; to offer our resources, whatever we may have, in the service of those suffering and in need; to make reparations to the black and brown and indigenous people we and our ancestors have harmed, directly and indirectly, those ones who knew how to live in balance with the land––to learn from them and with them and with one another to live the Oneness, as best we can, through every layer of our beingness. This, it seems to me, is what it means to embody the Tree of Life.

May this new year bring us goodness

and the discernment to know goodness,

the moral compass to seek wholeness 

the physical strength to act justly,

the grace to radiate compassion 

and to live in gratitude,

and the spiritual vision to turn toward the Oneness,

ever-present, ever-glimmering through the surfaces

of our mirrored world, 

the Oneness planted deep inside ourselves,

                  within our embodied lives,

and to love it into Presence.

L’shanah tovah um’tukah