Tree of life

גדולה תורה שהיא נותנת חיים לעשיה בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא, שנאמר (משלי ד) כי חיים הם למצאיהם ולכל בשרו מרפא. ואומר (שם ג) רפאות תהי לשרך ושקוי לעצמותיך. ואומר (שם ג) עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה ותמכיה מאשר.

Great is Torah, for it gives life to those who do it in this world and in the next world, as it says: “For they are life to those that find them, and healing to all his flesh” (Proverbs 4:22); and it says, “It will be healing for your navel, and tonic to your bones” (Proverbs 3:8). And it says, “It is a tree of life to those who hold it, and those who grasp it are happy” (Proverbs 3:18).

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 6:7

My ten year old son recently asked me why we compare the Torah to a tree of life after we sang that verse together in synagogue on Shabbat morning. I told him that I thought a tree could symbolize something living with deep roots in the earth, reaching high toward the sky. He nodded, then suggested that I should have first asked him what he thought the answer was before offering my own. He was reminding me of my own advice, gleaned from my first mentor teacher when I began my career in the classroom – asking opens, telling closes.

His question got me thinking about that line, though – why did we choose that particular metaphor out of so many in our texts (a few of which are quoted above)? Because I am lucky to have been gifted a Jewish Day School education by my parents, I can go looking for answers in our tradition. Here are a few of my favorite commentaries on that verse:

Ibn Ezra, an important Rabbinic voice from 11th century Spain, says that Torah is like a tree of life because those who eat its fruit will live many years. His interpretation refers to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, the fruit of which would extend human life.

The Malbim, a 19th century voice, offers a compelling idea centered around the word “grasp.” He suggests that there are a few righteous people in the world who have strong enough natural inclinations towards ethical action that they almost intuit Torah. For the rest of us, our complex inclinations require the decision to grasp Torah and hold it tightly, in order to make choices that move us toward righteousness.

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, a Mishnaic era source, suggests that Torah is like a tree because just as a small piece of wood can ignite larger ones to create a huge fire, even a single word of Torah can bring meaning and greater understanding.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England from 1991-2013, teaches that it is not an accident that the verse comparing Torah to a tree of life is preceded by the following words:

Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.

Prov. 3:17

He teaches that words of Torah are to be used in pursuit of peace and in generative conflict resolution, and in this way we can understand them as a metaphor for the kind of life we should aspire to live.

OK, there are a bunch of answers, but as my son reminded me last Shabbat – questions are often more important. So this Shabbat, ask your loved ones – how do they consider Torah a tree of life?

Shabbat Shalom,