Rashi and Buber Meet (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. Like a tree that changes and adapts to different seasons, the holiday of Tu Bishvat has evolved during the past 2,000 years of Jewish history. It began as the date that separated one fiscal tree year from another, enabling ancestors to calculate the proper tithe. Some 500 years ago, the Kabbalists of Safed created the Tu Bishvat Seder, influenced by the Passover Seder, as a way to help bring about tikun olam, the repairing of the world. The past century saw two developments in the celebration of Tu Bishvat. The first was the rediscovery of the holiday by the Zionist movement as an additional reminder of the importance of the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. In the last quarter of the century, as Judaism looked for ways to join the growing worldwide environmental movement, Tu Bishvat became the environmental holiday par excellence. In the course of the building of a Jewish environmental movement, commentaries and texts that had been lying dormant were reclaimed as the building blocks of Jewish environmentalism. One of these concerns "the tree of knowledge of good and bad" in the Garden of Eden (Gen.2:17). The question raised is: What kind of tree was it? The text only says it was a "fruit" tree (Gen. 3:6). Most people would answer an apple tree since that is how it is often portrayed in paintings. That represents a widely accepted Christian interpretation of the text. Islam offers a number of possibilities including a grape tree, a camphor tree, a fig tree, and a wheat tree. Judaism, too, offers a spectrum of views, which are often similar to those found in Islam. In the Midrash (Genesis Rabba, 15:7), we find a number of these. According to Rabbi Meyer, it was a wheat tree, while Rabbi Judah bar Llai insists it was a grape tree. Rabbi Abba of Acre maintained it was an etrog tree, while Rabbi Yossi countered that it was a fig tree. The basis for that latter interpretation is that Adam and Eve immediately clothed themselves with fig leaves after they ate from the tree (Gen. 3:7). Since the fig tree is the first tree mentioned after the incident, it also becomes, through deductive logic, the source for the name of the tree. From this, Rabbi Nehemiah teaches (Talmud Bavli Brakhot 40a) that the seed of restoration can be derived from the very thing that is the cause of such a need. Rashi (1040-1105) agrees that it was a fig tree and goes onto make a very interesting comment on why the Torah does not name the tree in the first place. He says that God did not want to embarrass the species of tree that had contributed to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and so did not specifically identify it as such in the text. Those of us reading at the dawn of the 21st century find that this comment of Rashi's sounds very much like Martin Buber (1878-1965). In his philosophical and existential masterpiece "I and Thou," Buber teaches that all of our encounters can be described as being either shallow (I-It) without a true "meeting" or "encounter," or of a deeper nature (I-Thou). "I contemplate a tree," Buber writes, extending this notion of simpatico to trees and the rest of nature. Echoing what Rashi said a thousand years earlier, Buber says that we need to have a deeper understanding of our relationship with nature and the environment. Do we approach nature from an anthropocentric perspective or from a biocentric perspective? That is to say: Do we see ourselves apart from nature or as a part of nature? Do we, for example, understand that our very breathing is an essential component of how our world is constructed? Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the director of Special Projects for the Friends of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (www.friendsofarava.org) Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.