There is something quite magical about trees. We read in the book of Deuteronomy about a tree who is standing in the field when a conquering army comes to take the city in which it grows. And we are instructed not to cut down that tree because, Torah asks rhetorically, “is a tree of the field like a human being who can retreat and run away to protect itself?” The tree is described as helpless, unable to run, and vulnerable to destructive forces. And surely, in many ways, it is. A tree cannot fight back. Well, not in the most obvious ways, anyway. See, a tree may not be able to protect itself in the ways we understand, but it can protect other trees around it—and in fact, it does.[i]
In the book, The Secret Life of Trees, we learn that when a dangerous insect lands on a tree or some other toxic substance threatens its leaves, that tree sends a signal down through its roots, toward the roots of trees nearby it, and alerts them to the danger. Those trees are then able to secrete protective chemicals through their own leaves, tailored to this specific threat, and so avoids being injured by this menace who has shown up to hurt it. Science is magical. A tree, sensing danger, protects her friends, and therefore the forest. A tree even communicates with trees of different species, so they can protect themselves, too.
Can you even believe it? A forest of trees is not a helpless, vulnerable, sitting duck. A forest of trees is an interconnected web of love, protection, and arboreal solidarity. Can you even believe it?
Of course we can. It’s how we are, too.
We’ve come here tonight for many reasons. We’ve come to mourn and remember the 11 people who were killed at Tree of Life Synagogue one year ago this weekend. We’ve come here to join in solidarity with one another, because we feel stronger when we are together and that is comforting. We’ve come here to celebrate Shabbat— to be together in joyfulness and embrace this day of rest, community, and peace. And we have come here to remember that we are like the trees—a woven, interconnected, network of solidarity.
One year ago, a white supremacist with hate in his heart, entered a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a small and deeply intertwined community in Pittsburgh, and perpetrated violence upon Jews simply because they were Jews. He targeted them specifically because they were a HIAS congregation—the same organization that spoke here at Yom Kippur. They were on a list of communities who declared themselves welcoming to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. They were heart broken by the stories they had learned about immigrant children, separated from their families, and placed in detention camps on our southern border. And they said: we do not accept this injustice for we are Jews, and we have been the stranger many times over, and we love the stranger, that is the heart of our tradition. And this man, who hated them for loving the stranger so deeply, entered their sacred space. Eleven beautiful souls taken from us. Six injured. A deep wound left in Pittsburgh.
Hate is a poisonous substance for the leaves of a tree. And, we are reminded, these days, that while this person was alone when he attacked, that his violent action is part of a growing anti-Semitism in our country today. We’re hearing stories about synagogues with hate messages written on them, swastikas showing up in parks and schools and dorms. White supremacy and casual bigoted language emboldened by our elected officials. Pointed at the Jewish people and also pointed at our Muslim, Sikh, LGBTQ, immigrant, Latinx, and Black sisters and brothers and cousins.
If we were trees of the forest, we’d be alerting one another through our roots right now, to reject such hatreds together. So we are not only here to mourn, but we honor the lives of these eleven people through our commitment to resisting such hate, to protecting one another from it, and refusing to be swallowed up by it.
This week’s Torah portion is B’reishit, the very first portion of the new cycle of our Torah reading. And we learn that God plants a garden on this new earth and places there Adam, the first earthling. And from the ground, God causes to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with aytz hachayyim, the Tree of Life, in the middle of the garden, along with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and bad.
Of course, the serpent encourages Eve to eat from that Tree and she does and then she gives it to Adam and he eats it, too. Vatipakachna einei sh’neihem—their eyes were opened.
Open to what, though? They were now able to distinguish between good and evil—something they could not do before. Their world complexified, they would have to bear the weight of reality. Eve and Adam could now see what we see.
They could see that no one is born with hate in their heart, but that sometimes hate is taught to the young.
They could see that people are capable of terrible destruction.
They could see that ignorance of the other can lead to fear of the other which can lead to hate.
They could see that a person feeling threatened could find false security by breaking down others.
They could see that the world is capable of abandoning or scapegoating or targeting the weak and the vulnerable.
Oh, but they could also see the good… more clearly than they had ever seen it before.
They could see that children look at other children with only love in their eyes.
They could see that people have an unparalleled ability to find healing even after enormous tragedy.
They could see clear as day that knowing the other would lead to understanding the other which would lead to love.
They could see that a person feeling threatened could also choose to seek out connection, and there find others ready to accept them, protect them, and call them family.
They could see that most people would choose to stand shoulder to shoulder with the most vulnerable in acts of solidarity and compassion and justice.
The moment Eve ate from that tree, the moment Adam ate from it, too, we inherited a world where we are able to see both the good and the evil in this world and to choose through which we will live. Perhaps this is why the Tree of Life stands in the middle of the Garden as well. For as soon as Eve bites from the Tree of Knowledge, it is the Tree of Life that catches her eye and reminds her…reminds us…that while there is evil in this world, we are instructed to choose life. Not death. To choose love, not hate. To choose goodness, not to succumb to hate or respond to hate with our own. The Tree of Life…then and now, is our aspirational guide, for what to do when we are forced to reckon with this world of both good and evil.
This week, Sam Schachner, the president of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh spoke eloquently about their plans to re-open their doors in the coming weeks. It will become a center for vibrant Jewish life in Pittsburgh, a symbol of hope and goodness and welcome for all people. He said there are three things you can do after a tragedy—you can despair, you can be defined by it, or you can become stronger through it. They will not sit in despair. They will not be defined by it. They will grow stronger.
Same for us. We will not be defined by someone else’s hate—not hate for us nor hate for others. We’ll be defined by our actions, by our joy, by coming together in community tonight and always—by our acts of resistance and love. We will call out anti-Semitism and other hatreds when and wherever we see then. Because there is a Tree of Life standing in the midst of all of us, connecting us by our roots, calling us toward what we aspire, intertwining us with all life and reminding us that we are all connected by our roots and we are so much stronger for it. Shabbat shalom.
[i] Thanks to my friend Rabbi Jon Leener, for sharing this bit of arboreal Torah with me.
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