The Teaching of the Trees
Dedicated to the Memory of our Beloved President Rabbi Aaron Panken, z”l
In The Overstory, the award winning novel by Richard Powers, trees take center stage as characters in a captivating dramatic landscape. The book begins: “First there was nothing. Then there was everything…A woman sits on the ground…leaning against a pine…The tree is saying things, in words before words.” Turn the page, and Powers continues: “A chorus of living wood sings to the woman…The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”1
Likewise, the trees in the haftarah portion we will read this week call out to you, soon our newest cantors and rabbis. They too say, “Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”
In the middle of the prophetic reading that accompanies Parashat B’har-Bekukotai, Jeremiah delivers a seemingly straightforward message. First: “Cursed is the one who trusts in humans” . Then, a few verses later: “Blessed is the one who trusts in YHWH” . Like most things in the Bible, this passage is more complex than meets the eye. Returning to the first verse, Jeremiah 17:5 contains a 3-part assertion: “Cursed is the one who trusts in humans, and makes mere flesh his strength, and from YHWH his heart turns away.” Medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimhi wonders about the seemingly superfluous third clause. Why does the verse need to condemn the person both for trusting in humans and also for turning away from God? For Kimhi, this extra phrase unlocks the whole meaning of the verse. He explains that people are not wrong in relying on other people, as long as they understand that it is only with God’s help that other people can help them.
Rabbis and cantors must consider well whom to trust. Jeremiah offers sound advice when he praises those who rely on God; but, like Kimhi, I would modify the prophet’s message. Ultimately, we need to trust both in God and in humans. As you begin your careers, you will need to rely on family and friends: the many loved one here today or cheering you on from afar who have supported you for the past five or more years and will continue to do so in the years ahead. You will need to rely on each other: the classmates with whom you have studied, sang, prayed, and celebrated; those with whom you have argued, grieved, grown, laughed, and loved. You will need to rely on co-workers, colleagues, teachers, neighbors, and new friends. For if you do not open yourself up to trusting in God and in the many people in your life, you risk ending up in a bleak, isolated place.
Jeremiah makes this precise point through metaphor. After he warns that one who trusts exclusively in other people will be cursed, he depicts such a person as “a shrub in the desert . He continues:
It will not see that good comes.
It dwells in parched places in the wilderness,
a barren land not inhabited.
What does it mean to say that a tree or a bush “will not see that good comes” Commentators explain that in this metaphoric context, “good” refers to rain: the plant will not experience or benefit from water that can appear even in an arid desert.2
Turning to the other half of the analogy, what does it mean to say that a person “will not see that good comes” Jeremiah implies that those who are cursed are condemned to isolation and hopelessness. He envisions a scenario in which a person in some sort of dire situation cannot conceive of a better future. —Cursed is the one who cannot believe—in the words of Psalm 30—that dirge can turn into dancing, that weeping can give way to glad song (Ps 30:12).
In “words before words,” the lonely shrub urges you to cultivate an optimistic, resilient spirit so you can believe in your heart of hearts that eventually good will come: even when you are mired in crisis, even when you are exhausted or filled with self-doubt, even when faced with a heartbreaking tragedy. To thrive in the demanding career to which you have dedicated your life, learn to trust: not only in God and in others, but in the miraculous human capacity to “emerge stronger out of the darkness.”3
The shrub in the desert is not the only arboreal protagonist in Jeremiah 17. A few verses later, we read: “Blessed is the one who trusts in YHWH…[That person] will be like a tree planted by water Elsewhere in the Bible, we find similar depictions of the righteous as a lush green tree growing beside streams of water.4 But what makes Jeremiah 17 distinct, and what makes this such a pertinent passage for soon-to-be ordained rabbis and cantors, is a remarkable line that parallels the one we just discussed.
In contrast to the shrub that “will not see that good comes” (v. 6), the tree “will not see that heat comes” . What does this mean? A subsequent line explains: “in a year of drought, it will not worry.” Think about what this text is saying: even though the metaphoric tree is planted by water and blossoming with green leaves and abundant fruit, this is no idyllic Garden of Eden. In this imagined landscape, heat and drought are an anticipated reality, conditions that even the most securely rooted and amply watered tree must confront. Make no mistake, Jeremiah warns, summer is coming; the heat is on its way.
By adding this unexpected element to a familiar metaphor, Jeremiah expresses a reality that was true then and now. He reminds us that, at some point, even the most virtuous individuals will face challenges or tragedies in life. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann articulates this truth when, reflecting on the book of Psalms, he writes: “our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of: being securely oriented; being painfully disoriented; and being surprisingly reoriented.”6
Brueggemann explains that being securely oriented means that we feel well-settled and at peace with the world. Now, this “all good” attitude is nice; but it rarely lasts. Before long, we face a controversy at work, a breach in a relationship, an illness, a natural disaster, a devastating loss. Each and every one of us experiences different forms of disorientation at different times, moments when we become painfully aware of the pervasive brokenness in the world.
Lest we succumb to despair, Brueggemann reassures us that this, too, rarely lasts, for “the other movement of human life is the surprising move from disorientation” to reorientation. He writes: “This is not an automatic movement that can be presumed upon or predicted. Nor is it a return to normalcy as though nothing had happened.” Instead, it “is always a surprise, always a gift of graciousness, always an experience that evokes gratitude.”
As clergy, you will spend much of your time accompanying people as they move between moments of secure orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. You will traverse these phases yourself. When you do, you will be called up to provide guidance and wisdom from our rich tradition and to help make meaning of a seemingly capricious world. As you engage in the sacred but strenuous work of serving as klei kodesh, holy vessels in service to God and the people Israel, consider well the pragmatic and ultimately optimistic message of Jeremiah 17.
What is the key difference between the tree that does not fear the heat and the shrub that cannot anticipate the rain? The tree is planted by a stream, a steady source of water that allows its roots to grow wide and deep, enabling the tree to produce fruit even during a drought.
So ask yourself: What are your sources of water? What will nurture and sustain you in the years ahead? Making music, engaging in continued study, crafting a rich and meaningful Jewish life, committing yourself to practices that keep your body and spirit strong, doing things that make you happy, being with people who bring you joy—these are some of the sources of water that can help you flourish personally and professionally. Trust in , the “Hope” or “Spring of Israel” (Jer. 17:12). Know that —“the Spring of Living Water ” (Jer. 17:12)—is always near.
Lean in and listen. Take the teaching of the trees with you as—at long last—you now fulfill your dream of becoming a cantor or a rabbi. Be bold as you embrace the opportunities that await you. Give the best of yourself to bring abundant blessings to our most fractured world. Know that because you have chosen this life and reached this milestone, —good will come.
1 Richard Powers, The Overstory: A Novel (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 3-4.
2 For more a more in-depth treatment of this passage, see Andrea L. Weiss, “Jeremiah’s Teaching of the
Trees,” at https://thetorah.com/jeremiahs-teaching-of-the-trees/.
3 Murali Balaji, American Values Religious Voices Letter 36 (www.valuesandvoices.com/letter36/).
4 Pss. 1:3; 37:35; 52:10; 92:8, 13-15: also see Jer 12:1-2.
5 The reading of this verb as “to see” reflects the qere (the text as read), not the ketiv (the text as
written), which states: “and it will not fear that heat comes.” For more on these two
interpretations, see the Weiss article referenced in footnote 2.
6 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2nd edition
(Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2007).