Behind our Atlanta synagogue stands (stood) a towering oak, over 100 feet high. It is (was) a magnificent tree, radiating majesty and power.
But the tree had to go. It stood in the way of a vital building project.
A group of men stood nearby observing the process of taking it down.
“Wow,” said one, “Their technique is amazing. They tie thick ropes all around the tree trunk so they can direct its fall, because if it falls the wrong way it damages the buildings all around. And look how they carefully cut off the top branches first. This is really an art.”
A second man mused: “Look at the guy at the very top. He is attached by huge straps to the trunk of tree. This is a regular circus! He’s hundreds of feet up in the air and he’s just going about his job, not even scared. Awesome!” A third man: “Those cutting blades when they hit the tree trunk, they’re so loud! That grinding and whirring and screeching – I can’t stand it. I have to cover my ears. Never heard such loud noises. I’m getting out of here.”
A fourth man: “You know how long it takes to grow a tree to that height? At least 100 years. This tree is gorgeous. Look at how powerful it is. You have to crane your neck to see the top. Look at how thick its trunk is – over five feet thick. And now they have to cut it down. It makes me want to cry.”
I stood nearby and listened. One, impressed by the technique, had the soul of an engineer; the second was filled with child-like awe at the sight of a man hanging on to a tree hundreds of feet in the air; the third was oblivious to everything except his personal discomfort; the fourth, touched by the spectacle of a proud, towering oak tree being reduced to firewood, had the soul of a poet.
What we see, how we see, and how we react to what we see are the mirrors reflecting who we really are. Behold these three scenes: 1) A beggar approaches two men on the street: One man says to himself: Why doesn’t he get a job and work for a living? A second man says: Poor guy, I feel sorry for him.
But for God’s mercy, that could easily be me.
2) Two people see a tree in the prime of its autumn beauty, leaves turning red and orange. One sees it as a symbol of the ultimate decay of every living thing. The other revels in its breathtaking display of colors, and, realizing there will be a complete renewal of these leaves in the coming spring season, sees it as a metaphor of life, death and rebirth.
3) Two Jews hear the peal of the village clocktower tolling out the hour of the day. One says, sadly: Well, that’s one hour closer to death. Says the other: Wrong; one hour closer to the coming of the Messiah.
And a fourth scene, right out of the Torah: When our forefather Abraham and his son Isaac were on their way to the site of the Akeda, the Torah tells us that “they saw the place [Mount Moriah] from afar” (Genesis 22:4). Midrash Tanhuma offers a remarkable insight: Avraham, says the Midrash, asks Isaac what he saw. Isaac replies, “A magnificent mountain with a heavenly cloud attached to it.” Avraham then asks his accompanying servants what they see. They reply, “We see emptiness, a wasteland.”
Avraham then proceeds to send the servants away. At the great moment of the Akeda he wants only visionary people with him, and these servants cannot see beyond themselves.
Only an Isaac can see the special beauty of the mountain (the future Temple Mount) and only he can detect that a divine cloud is actually attached to it.
A question, just between us: Had we been with Abraham on that historic journey, would we have remained in his entourage? Would he have detected in us the soul of a technician, or the soul of a poet? I admire engineers, and have great respect for technicians, but those I love the most are the ones who weep when they see a falling tree.
This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine, where the author writes the bi-weekly column “Second Thoughts.” www.mishpacha.com