Why Bread Satisfies

On the verse,1 “Is a man a tree of the field?” the Sifri comments: “This teaches that a person’s life is dependent solely on the trees.”

On the surface, this statement is difficult to understand, for humans derive their sustenance from many foods, and not only those that grow on trees.

This difficulty can be resolved based on the following concepts. In Likkutei Torah,2 the Alter Rebbe interprets the verse:3 “Bread satisfies the heart of man,” to mean that bread satisfies one’s appetite more completely than other foods. A person may also eat meat, but it will not sate his hunger the way bread does.

The reason why entities from the inanimate, plant, and animal kingdoms can provide food for humans, although humans are a higher form of life, is because those entities which have a higher source descend to a lower plane of existence. Therefore, man derives his food from the lower forms of life, because they have a higher spiritual source.

The lower the form of life, the higher its source. Since the plant kingdom is lower than the animal kingdom, plants have a higher source than animals. So it is that bread, which stems from the plant kingdom, satisfies far more than meat which comes from the animal kingdom. (For this same reason, the kosher members of the animal kingdom themselves derive their sustenance from the plant kingdom.)

On this basis, we can appreciate the Sifri’s statementthat a person’s life is dependent solely on the trees. As mentioned above, it is the plant kingdom which provides mankind with its greatest degree of satisfaction. Within the plant kingdom itself, it is the trees which manifest the potential for growth to the greatest degree.4 Therefore, the Sifri states that our lives are dependent on the trees.5

“Is a Man a Tree of the Field?”

The Talmud states:6

What is the meaning of the verse: “Is a man a tree of the field?” Is a man, indeed, a tree of the field?

The intent [becomes clear as the passage continues]. It is written:1 “From it you shall eat; you shall not cut it down.” And it is written:7 “You may destroy [the tree] and cut it down.”

What is implied? If one is a proper Torah scholar, one may eat (i.e., study Torah)8 from him and one should not destroy him. If not, one should destroy him (i.e., abandon him).

The Talmud implies that a person is compared to a tree; it is not merely that he derives his sustenance from trees. Although at first the comparison raises questions, a likeness between the two is ultimately established.

Yet this passage is problematic: a) Why does the Talmud question the comparison between a person and a tree at the outset? There are, after all, several aspects in which a likeness between the two is apparent. Indeed, the Mishnah9 itself draws a comparison between man and a tree.

The force with which the Talmud asks this question indicates that itconsiders the likeness between a man and a tree as complete, and not merely a comparison involving several particulars. It appears that the Talmud sees man and trees as the same.

If that is the intent, however, the resolution offered by the Talmud — that there is a way in which a person can be compared to a tree — is difficult to accept. Why is this facet more significant than the other characteristics by which a person can be compared to a tree?

b) The Talmud’s answer mentions a Torah scholar, while the verse speaks about mankind as a whole. How can a comparison to a Torah scholar be appropriate for all men?

c) What is the connection between the interpretation of the Sifri mentioned previously and that of the Talmud?10

Intellect’s Advantage and its Limits

Every person is described as “a world in microcosm.”11 Thus everything that exists within the world at large has its parallel within the world of each individual. Just as the world at large is divided into four categories: inanimate matter, the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, and mankind, so too there are parallels to each of these four forms of existence within man.

With regard to the plant kingdom, it is explained that the parallel within our human framework are the emotions.12 For the emotions grow from an underdeveloped state to a developed state.13

A man’s advantage over an animal involves his intellect.14 Although the parallels to the three forms of existence — inanimate matter, the plant kingdom, and the animal kingdom — as they exist within man are far more elevated than these forms as they are found in the world at large,15 this does not constitute the advantage possessed by man. Man’s advantage is his ability to think.

This is the meaning of the Talmud’s question: “Is a man, indeed, a tree of the field?” Our Sages understood that within man there exists a parallel to the plant kingdom, the realm of emotions. But is this man? Does this constitute the uniqueness of humanity?

The question is reinforced based on the well-known distinction regarding the four Hebrew terms used for man:16 adam, ish, gaver and enosh. Adam, the term used in the verse under discussion, is associated with our intellectual capacity,17 and represents the highest of these four levels.18 This then is the Talmud’s question: “Is an adam, indeed, a tree of the field?” Are the emotions the epitome of humanity, for which reason mankind has been given the name adam?

The Talmud responds, explaining that the ultimate purpose of the intellect is to affect the emotions and cause them to follow the intellect’s prompting. This reflects a stage of fulfillment in an individual’s striving for personal development.19

Intellectual prowess in itself does not reveal anything about personal development. The goal is that one’s understanding should affect one’s heart, as implied by the verse:20 “Know this day, and take unto your heart that G‑d is the L‑rd.” After knowing, one must take one’s thoughts to heart.

The Talmud communicates this concept by employing the analogy of a tree. Just as the advantage of a tree is the fruit it provides,21 so too an adam, a person identified with knowledge, a Torah scholar, must provide fruit. When can we recognize a Torah scholar as “proper”? When his intellect affects his emotions, which in turn invigorate his observance of the mitzvos, a processwhich our Sages describe22 as “bearing fruit.”

The Macrocosm and the Microcosm

Man, the world in microcosm, resembles the macrocosm, the world at large. In the world at large, mankind derives its sustenance primarily from the plant kingdom, because the plant kingdom has a higher source than mankind. Nevertheless, plants today exist in a fallen state, and must be elevated by mankind. Once a man performs such an act, because of its higher source, the plant provides the man with sustenance and energy.

Similar concepts apply with regard to the relationship between intellect and emotion. The source of the emotions is higher than that of intellect.23 Nevertheless, in their present form, the emotions are on a lower level and the intellect must elevate and refine them. Once this process is complete, the emotions can in turn lift the intellect to a higher level, allowing it to attain fulfillment. As mentioned previously: “Know[ing] this day,” should lead to “tak[ing] unto your heart.”

On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between the interpretation of the Sifri and the interpretation of the Talmud. Both are motivated by the same concept: that the plant kingdom can lift the human kingdom to a higher level. The Sifri, however, speaks about the macrocosm, the relationship between the plant kingdom and mankind, while the Talmud highlights how this relationship is reflected within the individual world of every person.

A Truly Human Man

There is a deeper aspect to the above concept. Intellect represents the advantage of mankind over the animal kingdom, the crux of our humanity. Accordingly, just as all four types of existence: inanimate matter, the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, and humanity, are included within man, so too, parallels to these four levels exist within our intellect itself.24 There is an aspect of intellect that resembles inanimate matter, one that resembles the plant kingdom, one that resembles the animal kingdom, and a uniquely human dimension.

This relates to the four terms for mankind mentioned previously. For example, ish refers to the aspect of intellect that relates to the emotions.25 Adam, by contrast, refers to the essence of intellect — abstract understanding that is above all connection to emotion.26

This is underscored by the Talmud’s question: “Is a man, indeed, a tree of the field?” The Talmud understands that “know[ing] this day,” should lead to “tak[ing] unto your heart.” On the surface, however, this can be accomplished by the element of the intellect which relates to the emotions, the level associated with the term ish. Seemingly, the essence of intellect, the level associated with the term adam, is above all connection to the emotions.

The Talmud resolves this difficulty by referring to the phrases: “From it you shall eat; you shall not cut it down,” and “You may destroy [the tree] and cut it down.” To explain the analogy: Fruit grows from the flowers that sprout from a tree’s branches, not from the trunk of the tree, and certainly not from its roots. (For the trunk and roots refer to higher levels, planes too elevated to produce fruit.)27

Nevertheless, in order for branches to produce fruit, the trunk and roots are necessary. Thus it can be said that the trunk and roots exist for the sake of the fruit. For this reason, the Torah states that a tree which does not produce fruit should be cut down.

Similar concepts apply with regard to our personal world. The essence of our intellect is above any direct connection to emotion. Nevertheless, the essence of our intellect should affect the functioning of our emotions; indeed, it has a more powerful effect than does the dimension of intellect directly associated with the emotions. In the final analysis, it can be said that the essence of the intellect exists in order to change one’s emotional makeup.

Transformation, Not Merely Refinement

There is a twofold advantage of the influence which the essence of intellect has on the emotions over the influence exerted on the emotions by the aspect of intellect related to the emotions:

a) Since the aspect of intellect which relates to the emotions considers emotion a significant entity, it is possible for emotions to obscure the light of intellect. When a person’s heart is dull and insensitive, his thoughts will not influence his feelings.28

With regard to the essence of intellect, by contrast, it is impossible for the emotions to veil it, and it shines through to the heart.29

b) Even when the intellect which relates to the emotions influences the emotions, it does not transform them. Since the emotions are significant in relation to this level of intellect, it can refine them, but does not change their fundamental nature.

The essence of intellect, by contrast, can change the very nature of the emotions. Indeed, this is the ultimate purpose of intellect.30

A similar comparison can be made between the study of Nigleh, the revealed dimension of Torah law, and P’nimiyus HaTorah, the Torah’s mystic dimensions. Nigleh is enclothed in concepts involving material reality. Therefore:

a) It is possible that it will not refine a person. Thus our Sages say,31 “If [a student of the Torah] is not worthy, the Torah becomes deadly poison for him.”

b) Even when the study of Nigleh influences the person who studies it, his natural tendencies and fundamental self-concern remain. For Nigleh was given with man in mind, that it be comprehended by mortal intellect.

With regard to P’nimiyus HaTorah, the opposite is true:

a) P’nimiyus HaTorah will ultimately influence the conduct of everyone who studies it, as our Sages say:32 “The light [within the Torah] (i.e., P’nimiyus HaTorah)33 will return him to the good.”34

b) It changes a person’s nature entirely, lifting him above his natural tendencies and self-concern.35 Not only does P’nimiyus HaTorah refine a person’s emotions, it changes the nature of those emotions.30

To the Most Extreme Peripheries

The above concepts reinforce the directive to “spread the wellsprings of your teachings outward,”36 producing a twofold lesson:

a) There are those who protest: “Why must we spread the wellsprings outward?” “Everyone,” they explain, “must be granted influence on their own level. For those on the peripheries, drawn water is enough, or the water of a mikveh. Why must the wellsprings themselves be used for those on the peripheries?

The answer is that the only way to affect those on the peripheries is to use the wellsprings. For these wellsprings never contract ritual impurity; indeed, they convey ritual purity to everything.37

b) Others protest: Why must I be involved with the peripheries at all? Why can’t I sit in my room and study P’nimiyus HaTorah? What connection do I have with those peripheries?

The answer is alluded to by the expression: “Spreading the wellsprings of your teachings outward.” When do the wellsprings of P’nimiyus HaTorah become your teachings? When they are spread to the peripheries. If such efforts are lacking, the person himself will not appreciate them as wellsprings.38 For as mentioned previously, the ultimate purpose
of the essence of the intellect is that it become an active force, effecting a change in one’s emotions.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Beshallach, 5722)