Tu B'Shvat: Contemplative Roots and Branches

On the “Fifth Day” of the tale called “The Seven Beggars”, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells us of a “Tree that stands beyond Space”.  This image has many overlapping and layered meanings in Breslov, many of which are explored  by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his translation of the Tales.  These include (among many others) the concepts of  the Garden of Eden, the role of the Tzaddik, the symbolism of the Temple, and the Gathering of the Exiles.  But to me—more than anything"The Tree that stands beyond Space" is an image which highlights the “Place” of encounter between the contemplative and the Divine as being a state “located” in the One who is Ha Makom, the only true place.

When we are engaged in contemplative study and prayer we are “taken out of” this world and “re-located” in the Heart of all worlds. We may be under our tallit or seated in solitude on a park bench. We may be sitting on a bus with our eyes closed or digging in a garden with our minds engaged in a wordless communication with the Creator.  We are "nowhere" because we have entered the Holy of Holies which is beyond measurement or geography.  And yet we have located ourselves at the root of the Tree of Life. Its branches are the performance of the mitzvos. Their function is to bring the rising sap to the  four corners of the world, and to bear fruit beyond the limits of our individual consciousness in whatever way G-d may desire.

I am writing this on Tu B’Shvat—the festival of the  New Year for Trees. Recently, I came across an extract from a liturgical poem which appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is called the “Parable of the Trees”  and it reads:  

One day the Trees of Life will put forth a shoot which will become the Everlasting Plant, for they take root before they grow and extend their roots toward the stream.
And the Plant will open its stem to the living waters and will become an everlasting source of blessing.

But now all the Well-Watered Trees tower over it,
For they grow as soon as they are planted,
But their roots do not extend towards the stream.

And the trees that will one day put forth the holy shoot of the plant of truth-
These trees are hidden away;
Their secret is sealed, it is not valued, it is not known.

For You O G-d have hedged in its fruit on every side
With the mystery of angels, creatures of might, of holy spirits
And a whirling, flashing fire.”
(in Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse page 187)

Perhaps the Kabbalah tradition holds something of that  guarded secret which the “Trees of Life” value. In his Sefer Ha-Rimmon, Moses de Leon quotes this midrash:

“Sleep is an unripe fruit of death
A dream is an unripe fruit of prophecy.
The globe of the sun is an unripe fruit of the Original Light.
The Sabbath is an unripe fruit of the World-to-come.
Torah is an unripe fruit of Supernal Wisdom.”
(Bereshis Rabbah 17:5)

and then  he makes the following commentary:

Look! The root of Torah is supernal wisdom-hidden and concealed, perceived only through its wondrous pathways. How wondrous are the offshoots!  But since the root is wisdom, who can ever reach it.   That is why Israel’s sweet singer sang: Open my eyes, so I can see wonders out of your Torah!”
(Trans. D.C.Matt in Essential Kabbalah p.145)

This reminds me of a favourite extract from Rav Avraham Kook:

"One way of learning Torah for its own sake is [to do so in order] to enrich the Community of Israel with great spiritual powers.
The more that the light of Torah increases, so that with one heart the people of Israel appreciate and respect it, the more that the fundamental power of our nation gains strength and firmness.
And the individual soul of the person who brings about this universal blessing itself grows and gains glory, gains completion and beauty, with a multitude of fresh branches.  And it sends forth a multitude of powerful roots, through which it takes root amidst the roots of the Tree of true life."  

    (trans. Yaacov David Shulman in  Orot Hatorah 2:4 )

Whether we celebrate a Tsfat-style seder for the festival of Tu B'Shvat or not –we can all make it a day of contemplative study of the Tree of Life, the Torah which is written on our heart. 

Nor is this something which is confined to this particular day. For "The Tree" which is beyond Space is also beyond Time.  The Torah is given anew in every moment and we only need to "turn" towards it to show our desire to dwell on its branches or in its shade. There is a miracle here.  Through no merit of our own, and by the unfathomable will of our G-d, we are capable of being "re-located" in the Heart of this Tree at any moment.  

 May our prayerful study “send forth branches and roots”.

Nachman Davies
reposted from 7th February 2012