If a tree falls in the forest, what do you hear?
When I was a little girl, I used to take long walks with my dad in our neighborhood. Sometimes he would tie pieces of candy to the branches of trees before our walk, which I would delight in finding when he pointed to a bird or new buds on a branch. I believed in magic, I believed in the power of trees, and I believed him when he told me that the “GF” (Good Fairy) had left them for me. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that GF stood for Good Father.
On one such walk Dad presented me with my first riddle: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it makes a sound?”
I didn’t know the answer then and am not certain I do to this day. But what I was left with were more questions about nature and science and a pocket full of lifesavers.
Jewish tradition has its own variance of the tree riddle. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Eliezer taught: “In the hour when you cut down a tree that bears fruit, its voice goes out from one end of the universe to the other, yet its voice is not heard.”
This powerful image the silent scream of a felled tree heard throughout the world is an indication of how important trees, and all of nature, are in the Jewish tradition. Trees hold a place of honor in Jewish texts, the Jewish calendar, and the Jewish spirit. They are a metaphor for life, spiritual sustenance, and the future of the Jewish people.
The Torah tells us that “man is like the tree of the field” and commands us not to destroy any fruit trees in the midst of taking the spoils of war. This commandment not to destroy is called bal tash’hit in Hebrew. We call the Torah Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life, because it provides us with spiritual sustenance, much as a tree provides us with physical nourishment. And we are taught: “If while holding a sapling in your hand you are told that the Messiah is about to arrive, first plant the sapling and then go out to receive the Messiah.”
Yet it is the second part of Rabbi Eliezer’s image, of the wailing voice of the tree no one hears, that sends chills down my spine. The rabbis wrote about the issues of the day, attempting to unravel the mysteries of life, make sense of their problems, and provide wisdom and guidance. Could it be that 2,000 years ago, they were concerned that members of a society who had lost its sensitivity to the destruction of trees would lose their ability to care for one another? Had we already begun to lose the balance between the biblical mandates “of ruling and dominating the earth” and “working and protecting it?”
You don’t have to look far to see or hear the consequences of the natural world screaming back at us today. Regardless of partisan affiliations, we can’t deny the emerging evidence of the negative effects that global warming is having on the world community. Our warmer climate is heating up ocean waters, fueling hurricanes and tsunamis. The current drought in the Amazon, the melting glaciers, the rising water levels are all suspected to be the result of rising ocean temperatures. The list is long and getting longer, and everything is interconnected, endangering not just thousands of animal and plant species but the human species as well.
There are things all of us can do, as concerned members of the Jewish community and as citizens of the world community. Bal tash’hit tells us not to destroy our environment: It requires us to consciously manage our resources and avoid waste wherever and whenever possible. Using environmentally friendly building products in our homes and offices, recycling waste products, reducing our energy demands by using compact fluorescent lights, lowering our thermostats, replacing our filters, using less fuel, and buying more fuel-efficient cars are just a few of the things we can do that will, collectively, make a difference. Like everything else in Jewish tradition, it is the power of the community and the collective efforts of each one of us that ensures the future.
If we ask ourselves the tree riddle today, perhaps it should be this: If a tree falls in the forest, what will we hear and what will we do about it? Bal tash’hit is the first step in answering the question.
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