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.)