By Jonathan Wittenberg
Excerpted from The Eternal Journey
“Take with you of the song of the land,” said Jacob to his children.
“What is ‘the song of the land’?” asked the Rebbe of Apt, “if not,
‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’?”1
Where would we be without the song of the land? Of course, this classic hasidic interpretation is in fact a creative mistranslation. What Jacob really said to his sons at the height of the famine, when they were obliged to return to Egypt to buy grain, and insisted on taking Benjamin with them, was, “Take of the pruning of the land,” that is, of its produce, fruits, and spices. Yet perhaps there is a certain kind of song in the very flavor and fragrance of such a harvest. Perhaps, like Joseph, we, too, are strangers in a foreign land, and may be reminded by such things of our home.
For the trees and the whole of nature speak to us. To be denied their presence is to be subjected to a serious deprivation of the spirit, as city dwellers partly are. To reach the point where we don’t care whether we see anything green or not is precisely to prove our alienation. Indeed, there may be parts of the heart which simply fail to receive their due education because of the absence of the language of trees and grasses, animals and birds. We do not experience their inspiration, we are not cleansed by their chastening presence and we live without any relationship to the rhythms they form through day and year. Part of our essential being starves; we are that much more vulnerable to the subtle desensitization of our moral and spiritual being.
Maybe this is the insight that underlies the frequent poetic references to trees throughout the Bible, but especially in the Books of the Prophets and in the Psalms. In the Bible, trees do not only speak; they sing, dance, and clap their hands for joy. Trees are among the first plantings of God in Eden and trees are mentioned as part of the first recorded sale of land, by Efron to Abraham. Abraham himself plants a tree, in Be’er Sheva, and calls on the name of the eternal God. But it is Isaiah’s description which is perhaps the most beautiful: “You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills shall break before you into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12). Surely there can be no greater blessing than that.
I simply cannot describe what I owe to the natural wonder of this world. My soul in its fullness — and its frequent emptiness — knows. Almost every day I am affected by nature’s rich and gracious generosity. My mind has been sweetened, my blood has been quickened, and my spirit has sung. Whatever love my heart feels is nurtured by many things; but essential among them are the grass, the leaves, the rain, and the trees, which feel pure and profoundly sustaining.
Yet there is a paradox here. For, while in itself substantially amoral, following the rules of seasons and species, and largely indifferent to the law of compassion, nature is widely experienced by human beings as morally and spiritually renewing. Wordsworth, revisiting the hills above Tintern Abbey, reflects on the solace that thoughts of the scene have brought him in the years since he was last there:
I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:2
At a similar point in time, but amidst other forests and from a very different culture, Rebbe Nahman of Breslav asked God to help him make it his custom:
to go outside each day among the trees and grasses — among all growing things — and there…be alone and enter into prayer, to talk to the One to whom I belong.
Maybe we are subtly selective in what we see in nature; or maybe we simply feel embraced by a greater life, and forgetting our pettiness, rediscover our capacity for awe.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the remarkable encounter described by Viktor Frankl in his account of his experiences in the concentration camps. A young woman is dying, yet she is cheerful in spite of that knowledge:
“I am grateful fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and didn’t take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”3
The courage and generosity of this young woman are striking: she is comforted at the ultimate moment by the presence of a tree. For sure, she is not the only person to have held such a conversation or to have heard in the speech of trees the voice of a mighty force for life. But she surrenders to it as to God, reconciled and consoled. Strangely, there is a chestnut tree in the tiny back garden behind the secret annex, below the window of Anne Frank’s room. I have often looked at it during my visits there: did it too speak?
Tu Bish'vat has come to mark our special bond with trees; it has become our festival of planting, particularly in Israel. When one plants a tree, one has to pay particular attention to the roots. One must dig a hole deep enough and wide enough to spread them well out; they should never be cramped or forced to point upward. It is worth taking care when planting trees, for in tending to their roots, we nurture our own.
- Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, ’Imrei Yosef, in Humash peninei hahasidut, bereshit ( Jerusalem: Hotza’at ‘Agudat Peninei Hahasidut, 5747), p. 381.
- William Wordsworth, “Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey,” in Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads, ed. R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1976), p. 114.
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984; New York, London: Pocketbooks, 1984), p. 90.