Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | February 5, 2015

Tree of a Kind – A Tu B’Shvat Musing

Have you ever heard the term, “Dead Tree edition?”  I hadn’t until recently, and I didn’t like it when I did.  It’s apparently a piece of journalistic jargon, referring to a non-electronic magazine or news publication, one made out of [gasp!] paper.

When I first heard it, I thought it was a cynical approach to describe something like a newspaper which may have been providing valuable information to generations of consumers.  The term “dead tree” implied to me that there was no need for a poor tree to have died in vain, as you could easily have read what you wanted on some digital device that would save the poor hapless tree.  No mention of Shabbos, of course, or seforim, but I’m guessing the creator of the term was not an observant Jew.

Then I heard it was an industry term, used by journalism professionals, and I thought it was a cynical approach to describe something like a newspaper which may have been providing… you get my drift.  Just because it’s a “witty” term coined by someone with an environmental bent or agenda doesn’t mean I have to like it.  Personally, I’d rather be “out of the know” and use the word paper, then use something with a negative and cynical connotation like “dead tree.”

I discussed it with my kids.  One daughter said, “But the paper companies are responsible. They plant two trees for every one they cut.”  She had a point.  But as I thought about it, I wondered what was so bad about a dead tree?  When trees are alive they change carbon dioxide into oxygen, provide food, shade, and protect the area from flooding.  That’s fantastic.  When they’re dead, though, they’re not through providing for Mankind.

“Dead” trees don’t fit the connotation of “dead,” which is something useless, pointless, and meaningless.  Not by a longshot.  When they’re cut down, trees have an entirely new set of uses.  Their wood is used for building homes, as fuel creating fire for light and heat for warmth, and yes, it can be made into paper, allowing the sharing of ideas overs great distances and time spans.tree-heart

Trees have a useful lifespan whether they are attached to the ground or not, and that’s something we should learn from.

“Ki ha’Adam aitz ha’sadeh,” For is the tree of the field a man?  The Torah poses this question to us when it directs us NOT to cut down a fruit-bearing tree to make a battering ram when we’re trying to conquer a city.  The tree is not a man, a member of the enemy camp, and we must take into account that killing it is not something to be done lightly.  However, if we need it, we are allowed to do it.

Chazal, though, in their infinite wisdom, interpret this phrase as a statement.  “Man is a tree of the field.”  People are to be compared to trees, and I know just the way we should compare ourselves to them.

Trees greatly benefit the world around them and ask for little in return.  That’s how we should be.  We should not be high-maintenance, and we should try at all times to give to others.  Trees are not one-trick ponies.  They provide many different benefits for the world and we, too, should aim to give in as many ways as possible.

Trees provide fruit, in which are seeds to create and grow many new trees.  By “planting seeds,” and investing our time, love, and energy in others, we will one day reap bountiful harvests we never dreamed of.  As the expression goes, “Any fool can count the seeds in an apple, but only a wise man can count the apples in a single seed.”  As people, we should not be concerned as much with our situation in the present, as the world’s situation moving into the future.

Have you ever heard of Thompson Seedless grapes?  Most of the green grapes you know come from cuttings of a single vine raised by William Thompson in California in the mid-1800’s.  By taking a part of this vine which produced luscious, juicy, fruit, and transplanting it elsewhere, it kept the original vine “alive” and “productive.”  When a person’s knowledge, experiences, and deeds are copied, they live on as well.  We would do well to remember this and make sure our life is worth emulating by others.

Just as trees do not become obsolete when they are dead, we should strive to ensure that while we are alive people find us comforting, helpful, and beneficial and we also leave behind a legacy that that is useful and meaningful to others.  We should leave them informed, warm, and protected, just as a tree leaves behind paper, firewood, and lumber for walls.

This Tu B’Shvat, think about the roots you’ve put down, and how you’re nurturing the seedlings in your life, be they family, friends, or people you’ve just met today.  There’s plenty of room for growth so take advantage of the opportunity to branch out.

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