Parshat Shoftim tells us that we are not allowed to cut down fruit-bearing trees, "for the adam [man] is the tree of the field."1 The Sifri2 writes that "This teaches us that the life of a person is only from the tree." Surely a person is sustained by other foods that don't grow on trees as well. Why are trees singled out?

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi,3 explains the verse, "Bread feeds the heart of man,"4 to mean that bread satisfies a person more than meat.

Why does food satisfy a person? And what is unique about bread that it is more satisfying than meat?

The Four Kingdoms

The Alter Rebbe explains that everything in this world is divided into four kingdoms: The lowest is domem, “inanimate objects”, like rocks, sand, water, and metals and minerals. Above that is tzomeach, “things that grow”, like plants and trees. Even higher is chai, “living things,” like animals and fish. And the highest is medaber, “people who have conversation,” which means that they think about things and discuss them.

The rule is that the higher a thing is in its spiritual source, the lower it falls into the physical world. So although chai and tzomeach are lower than us in the physical, their source is higher. And, of course, the source of tzomeach is higher than chai.

When we eat these foods, which are of a higher source, we connect to their source, and that is why they are satisfying and sustaining to us. Since plants are from a higher source than animals, we are more satisfied from bread, which is from wheat, a plant, than from meat.

You may ask: What about domem, “inanimate objects”? I would surmise that they are more important than plants to our existence, like water and salt, without which we could not survive. Yet with the exception of water, which we drink, we don't make a meal of domem, and we certainly don't eat them. They are added to a meal, and that is how we connect to their source. But since we don't eat them as a meal, they are not part of the discussion.5

Now that we know that tzomeach is most satisfying, since the most prominent of all plants are trees, it makes sense that the Sifri says that "the life of a person is only from the tree." Trees are symbolic of all that grows, all tzomeach.6

The Human Trees

The Talmud7 says, "What is the meaning of the verse, 'for the adam [man] is the tree of the field'? Is then a man a tree of the field? Rather, because it says [about fruit-bearing tree], 'for from it you will eat and you should not cut it down,' and it says [about non-fruit-bearing tree], 'it you could destroy and cut down.' How does this work? If he is a proper talmid chacham [Torah scholar], you should eat [learn8] from him, and you shouldn't cut him down; if not, destroy him and cut him down [turn away from him9]."

What is a "proper" talmid chacham? One whose Torah affects his actions. He doesn't only study, but has a refined character due to his study.

From this is understood that not only does a person get fed from a tree, but the person is actually like a tree.

This brings up a few questions:

Why does the Talmud ask, "Is then a man a tree of the field?" There are many ways a person is compared to a tree, even the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot10 compares a man to a tree. It seems from the Talmud's question that the whole of the person is like a tree. However, the answer it gives is that in one more detail a man is like a tree. In which way is this answer more the whole of the person than all the other comparisons?

The answer of the Talmud just focuses on the wise sage, which is only one segment of the population. But from the Talmud's question, "Is then a man a tree of the field?" It seems that it is referring to every person. How does the answer explain how every person is like a tree?

And finally, is there a connection between the Sifri's answer and the Talmud's?

The Human World

A person is called a "small world."11 Everything that is found in the world is also found in a person in some way. The world is divided into domem, tzomeach, chai and medaber, and so is a person.

In a person, tzomeach refers to his or her emotional makeup,12 which grows as he or she matures, and it is always growing.

The main distinction between medaber, people, and everything else, is that we have intellect. We have the ability to think about things. And that is the question of the Talmud, "Is then a man a tree of the field?" In other words, is a person’s emotional makeup what he or she is all about? Isn't a person about his or her cognitive abilities?

The question becomes stronger when you think about the word used to say "man" in our verse. In Hebrew there are four ways to say man:13 adam, ish, enosh and gever. Adam refers to the intellect of a person,14 while ish refers to his emotional makeup. So the Talmud's question becomes, "Is then an adam a tree of the field?" Is that what an adam is all about, his emotional makeup. Weren’t we taught that adam refers to the intellect?

The Talmud answers that the whole point of one's intellect is that it affects his emotions, so that they become in line with his intellect. Then he has reached the pinnacle of an adam. There is no point in the intellect if it doesn't affect the way the person feels and acts. If he is a genius but not a mentch, he missed the point and has not reached the pinnacle of an adam.

The Whole-Adam Approach

About knowing G‑d, we are told, "And you should know today, and you should bring it to your heart."15 In other words, the whole point of "you should understand today," is that "you should bring it to your heart," the seat of the emotions. Knowing is not enough, it has to change you as a person.

Note the Talmud’s words: if he is a "proper" talmid chacham. It is not enough to be a talmid chacham, to have the knowledge, but he has to be proper. His knowledge has to affect him as a person, and if not, turn away from him.

This is relevant to every part of the person. The intellect has to affect your emotional makeup. Only then are you a mentch, an adam.

The "small world" is similar to the "big world." In the big world, the tzomeach looks lower, and it needs us to raise it up. However, once we eat it, we are affected by its source, which is higher. So too, in the small world, emotions seem lower than intellect. However, in their source, emotions are higher. Once we raise our emotions through our intellect, then the source of the emotions affect our intellect, raising it ever higher.

Although there are many ways that a person is like a tree, this particular teaching defines the essence of every human, that the intellect has to affect the emotions.

This is also the connection between the Sifri and the Talmud. The answer is the same, ultimately tzomeach is most effective, the Sifri is explaining how it is in the big world, and the Talmud is explaining how it is in the small world, the person.

Since being a person is defined as having intellect, our small world is found in our intellect. That means that our intellect itself has all four parts, domem, tzomeach, chai, and medaber within it. The ish of the intellect is the lower part of the intellect, one that has an affect on the emotions. The adam of the intellect is the essence of intellect, too high to connect to the emotions.

The Talmud's question is, "Is then an adam a tree of the field?" It is true that the intellect must have an affect on the emotions, but does it have to be the essence, the adam of the intellect, that affect the emotions? Wouldn't it be enough for the lower part, the ish, to have an affect?

The Intellectual Intellect

The Talmud answers, that if it doesn't have fruit, you can cut it down. This doesn't only refer to the branches of the tree that have the fruit, but also to the trunk and the roots that don't have any fruit growing on them. You could ask, why would you cut down the trunk just because its branches don't produce any fruit? But that is a silly question. Obviously, in order for the branches to have fruit, there must be the trunk and the roots. The fact that there are no fruits growing on the branches is because the roots and the trunk are also not fruit-bearing, so you can cut them down.

The same is true about the essence, the adam, of the intellect. Although it doesn't affect the emotions directly, its purpose is ultimately for the emotions, and if it doesn't affect the emotions, it is not fulfilling its main purpose.

You may ask: Why is it not enough for the lower part of the intellect to work on the emotions? What do I gain by using the higher part of the intellect to influence the emotions?

First, since the lower part of the intellect has an effect on the emotions, it is likely to be affected by the emotions as well. If, for some reason, the heart is in a dark and cold place, it could block the light of the intellect as well. If that happens, the lower part of the intellect will not be able to have an effect on the emotions. On the other hand, the adam of the intellect is above the emotions, and can't be affected by them. Therefore, it will always be able to have an effect on the emotions.

Second, even if the lower part of the intellect is not affected by the emotions and is able to work on them and refine them, it won't be able to change them completely,. They will retain their nature, just more refined. This is because the lower part of the intellect is not above the emotions. It can only work with what they currently consist of, moving them into a positive direction. On the other hand, the adam of the intellect is above the emotions, and therefore it can always affect them, and even change their nature completely. This is actually the main purpose of the essence of the intellect, to change the nature of the emotions.

May we have a strong influence on our emotional makeup, that they come in line with our intellect. Then we will be trees that can be eaten from. This will help us have a good influence on our surroundings, which will help us bring Moshiach closer. May he come soon.16