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 shelter; many a back has leaned against its trunk. Over the years, the tree has provided comfort and a haven to countless people. I gaze up at it and marvel at the secrets it holds. But 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 reflect on what we can learn from them as well.

When Moses instructed the spies to scout the Holy Land, he directed them to look for trees.1 Our sages teach that he wasn’t referring only to physical trees; he spoke also of metaphorical trees—the righteous, whose piety protects those around them from harm, as trees shield from the sun.2 One wonders why Moses chose the metaphor of trees. What messages hide behind it?


The virtue of the righteous protects those around them.

In biblical Israel, there were three cities of refuge set aside for those guilty of manslaughter—murder without intent. The moment the accidental murderer entered the city, he was safe from retribution by his victim’s family. Our sages teach that the murderer was under the city’s protection from the moment he set foot beneath 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 their branches, we are safe. In a similar vein, the virtue of the righteous protects those around them. Though some individuals might be lacking in piety, the community as a whole is shielded under the protective branches and positive influence of the pious few.


In the Torah there is a concept called tum’ah—ritual impurity. There are various ways in which such impurity may be contracted, but one of them is through sharing a common shelter. 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, may all sit under the shade of a single tree. Under its influence, we all unite. In its shade, we are at home.

Good Cheer

Trees do more than create oases of shade; trees improve the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. We must do the same.

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


True leaders and friends offer clarity and stability.

In California, million-dollar homes are built on hilltops overlooking the ocean. The slopes are precarious because they are bare, and every rainstorm brings the threat of mudslides. The solution is to plant trees. Their roots create interlocking webs, holding the earth in place. The more mature and numerous the trees, the more they secure the hilltop.

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

True leaders and friends offer clarity and stability. 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 just 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 rain. We humans are the same. No matter how bitter and downtrodden, a little empathy and love will melt the crust of bitter hearts. The human spirit is resilient. Even a person who has never experienced love has the potential to bloom under the right conditions.

Chain Reaction

One last thought about trees: You never know where one might pop up. Once they take root, they have a life of their own, and no one can predict where they might sprout. A stubborn root might break through your foundation, and a tree might pop up in your living room.

Never underestimate the power of a single act of kindness or a single moment of teaching.The same is true of humans. Once we invite our fellows 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 land 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 and a sympathetic heart.

It helps the people around you, and it might help someone else down the line.

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