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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tu B’Shevat Meditation


I may live in a city where there is not much greenery to be had, but at least I have my tree. It grows right in front of my building, its shady branches sweeping over the fire escape, thrusting their leaves into my bedroom window for a friendly wave.

Trees and urban areas don’t get along very well. Their roots rip up sidewalks and get entangled in sewer pipes. Their branches must be trimmed regularly lest they poke into power lines or apartment windows. Indeed, their uneasy coexistence exemplifies our own complicated relationship with the natural world.

I live in a neighborhood with a synagogue on every street corner. Still, I have a spiritual hunger that can be assuaged only by contact with nature. It’s no wonder that the chassidic movement has its roots in the Eastern European countryside. The surroundings—the dense forests and quiet meadows—lent themselves to hours of spiritual meditation.

On the other hand, chapter six of Tanya describes the physical world as “a world filled with impurity and unholiness . . . and therefore all affairs of this world are difficult and evil, and the wicked prevail.”

It seems that the physical world can come in two forms. One that brings us closer to G‑d, and one that pushes G‑d away. In which do we live?

Cities are a monument to human endeavor and creativity. They are places where art, culture and education can flourish. But they are also places where the worst of human tendencies—greed, jealousy, arrogance—are on full display. And in this manmade world, G‑d can be a bit harder to find.

I remember visiting the amusement park as a child, and right in midst of the wild rides and attractions I’d look for a little patch of grass. I would sit and watch the birds pecking in the dirt and the ants scurrying about. Many adults don’t realize that for a child an amusement park can be a very stressful place, full of harsh noises, strange people, wild movements. That square of grass was mine; it represented security, serenity and stability. I could enjoy that little part of nature without having to push anyone else aside, without an interminable wait for my turn.

Life in the city sometimes feels like a perpetual carnival, with endless noise and distractions; aggressive, pushy crowds—and I’m just seeking my little patch of dirt.

Somewhere above, G‑d is looking on, amused by our antics. “He who dwells in heaven laughs . . .”1 But He entrusted His wonderful, endlessly creative world into our hands. He gave us the tools to enrich it, develop it or make an utter muck out of it.

On the third day of creation, G‑d first gathered the waters together to allow dry land to be seen, and then created trees and all vegetation: “Let the earth sprout vegetation, seed yielding herbs, and fruit trees producing fruit according to its kind, in which its seed is found on the earth.”2 When the day’s work was completed, G‑d said, “And it was good,” twice.

G‑d’s creative power—symbolized by the reproductive potential within trees—can be expressed in two ways: First, there are trees and grasses that grow in the wild. Their growth is a linear process: the wind blows and disperses the seeds, or animals eat the fruit and carry the seeds to distant locations. Then there is vegetation cultivated by the human hand. We figure out the best seasons for planting, the best way to fertilize and tend to the crops to ensure the greatest yield. We take G‑d’s initial investment and multiply it a thousandfold.

This is why, on the sixth day, when G‑d created man, He said, “And it was very good.” Like all of creation, we have the ability to procreate, to produce progeny “in our own kind.” But unlike all other creatures, we were given additional intellectual powers to unravel the secrets of creation—to harness the inherent powers of nature for our own purposes.

Our initial agricultural endeavors gave rise to human culture and civilization. But they also gave rise to some of the less pleasurable aspects of human life: inequality, greed, spread of disease.3 And this is the duality we struggle with until today: the very control over nature that G‑d handed to us can be a source of tremendous blessing or the opposite, G‑d forbid.

My way of handling city dwellers’ angst is to get in touch with a tree. Trees keep us grounded in the true reality so that we don’t get shaken by the confusion that surrounds us. And we need to reach out to the figurative “tree” as well—the Torah, our G‑d-given source of guidance and direction. “It is a tree of life to all those who hold on to it, and those who support it are blessed.”4

(Based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 11 Nissan 5740.)

Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discover Magazine, May 1987.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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leon roiter barranquilla January 29, 2016

to marvin finkelstein The purpose of your upstairs neighbour is to force people like you to join forces with good intentionned neighbours in order to construct a strong and invinsible world inhabited exclusively by well intentionned people who take good care of nature. Reply

Joseph Connecticut January 28, 2016

Nice! Reply

inge reisinger zwickau January 26, 2016

the story above and the comment from mr. finkelstein touched me deeply as i remember the joy that a mulberrytree on the street a cherrytree and peartree in his yard made my partner smile when i brougt him the fruits he was so proud to posses fruittrees in his yard and now after his dead i don't know what his children are doing with these trees if they can estimate how much joy it was for their father to eat directly from a tree the fruit Reply

Marvin Finkelstein Kew Gardens Hills(Queens Valley) January 25, 2016

Planting a comment on Tu Be Shevat My Facebook photograph is an old mulberry tree in back of my parent's old apartment in Bell Park Manor-Terrace , Queens.
It originally was in a back yard planter of my uncle's house, and my paternal grandmother suggested that it be saved and planted in back of our new apartment in the spring of 1962.
Subsequently, we had problems with our upstairs neighbor who was on the co-op board who attempted to throw us out, but my family prevailed.
In a bout of depression after losing my job of seventeen years at Chase Manhattan Bank, I let the apartment slip through my fingers, but the tree remained.
Hence, it became my Facebook photo. Reply

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