Discussing the verse1 “For man is a tree of the field,” the Sifri comments: “This teaches us that man derives his sustenance exclusively from the tree.” How are we to understand this statement, when a person is obviously sustained by other food as well?

Another verse states:2 “Bread satiates man’s heart.” The Alter Rebbe explains3 that although a person also derives nourishment from meat, it does not satiate like bread does.

The reason why minerals, vegetables and animals provide man with nourishment, notwithstanding the fact that man is loftier than them, is because their spiritual source is higher than man’s. Because their source is higher, at the time of their descent they descended lower. Since the vegetable kingdom is even lower than the animal kingdom, thereby indicating that its source is higher, it has a greater ability to sustain man.

The Sifri’ s statement can be understood accordingly. Since man derives his primary nourishment from the vegetable kingdom, and since the largest form of vegetation is the tree, the Sifri says that man lives from the tree, i.e., from vegetable growth, symbolized by the tree.

The Gemara4 quotes the verse “For man is a tree of the field,” and asks: “Is man then a tree?” The Gemara answers that with regard to trees, we find two contradictory verses. One states: “from it you shall eat, but the tree you shall not destroy,”5 while another declares,6 “the tree is to be destroyed.”

How can we reconcile these verses?

The Gemara answers: “If he [i.e., the individual — for a person is likened to a tree] is a G‑d-fearing scholar, you should ‘eat’ — learn Torah — from him; if not, you are to ‘destroy’ — turn away from — him.”

Whenever there are two comments on a single verse, the comments are related. What is the relationship between the comment of the Sifri and that of the Gemara ?

Our Sages7 refer to man as a “small world,” a microcosm of the universe. Just as the world is divided into the four categories of mineral, vegetable, animal and man, so too man possesses aspects of all four categories.8 Man’s emotional attributes are the vegetative aspect, for, similar to vegetation, they display conspicuous growth.9

Man’s superiority over the animal world lies in the fact that he is a rational being. The Gemara therefore asks: “Is man then a tree?” In other words, while it is true that man also possesses some traits of the “tree of the field,” is this humanity’s principal characteristic?

The Gemara’ s answer is that the ultimate purpose of man’s intellect is that it descend and affect his emotions, so that they come to be guided by his mind.

Indeed, intellect alone does not lead man to a state of completion.10 The objective “Know [G‑d] today,” is to “implant it within your heart,” so that the knowledge properly affects the emotions.

Herein lies the analogy of the tree. Just as the quality of a tree lies in its fruits, the true quality of a scholar is not simply in his scholarship, but in the fact that he is “G‑d-fearing,” i.e., his intellect affects his emotions.

Herein lies the similarity between the macrocosm and the microcosm. Man is sustained by the vegetable kingdom because its source is higher than man’s. By eating vegetable matter, man elevates the food back to its source. This, in turn, enables the food to sustain him.

So too with regard to man himself. His vegetative aspect, the emotions, have an even higher spiritual source than his intellect.11 It is only that in their revealed state they descended lower than his intellect, and so intellect is to guide the emotions, purifying and refining them. When this is achieved, the emotions in turn affect the intellect, elevating it to its most complete state.

The Sifri and the Gemara thus both emphasize the same point — the elevation of man through the vegetable kingdom. The only difference is that the Sifri addresses itself to the world as a whole, while the Gemara speaks in terms of “man” and the “vegetable” within the human microcosm.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, pp. 1114-1117.