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Trees are Human, Too
by Dr. Arnie Gotfryd
Look in the mirror and see… a tree! What is the root of the Torah’s imagery describing our mitzvah to conserve? And why not, say, a bird instead? - by Arnie Gotfryd


There’s something about trees that stirs the soul. A je ne sais quoi, an unfathomable depth, a firmness, grace. A tree quietly makes its statement. I am here. Creating an environment, refreshing the air, softening the light, heat and soil, moderating moisture, stabilizing the earth and the elements. Through all of this they host a myriad of birds and bugs, mushrooms and mammals, countless creations that could never find a home were it not for the forest and the trees. And they are beautiful, too.

We resonate with trees. The most magnificent mansion sits boring and barren without a mantle of vegetation and especially trees to frame it. And at this time of year, as the season’s edge turns, millions of motorists hit the roads and waterways for one last summer sojourn in God’s country – i.e., any place where the woods dominate the landscape and refresh our city-worn souls.

This week’s Torah portion contains the mitzvah of conservation and does so by comparing man to a tree of the field, כי האדם עץ השדה o
[1] The verse portrays a dichotomy, expressing the metaphor both as a question, “Is man a tree of the field?” and as a statement, “For man is a tree of the field.”  So is he or isn’t he? Well, he is and he is not! From the question perspective, we learn that trees, etc., have their own life and integrity that must be respected. From the statement perspective, we learn that on a deeper level, we have common identity with trees, manifest both physically and spiritually.

The Forest

To step back for a moment, let’s look at the “forest”, the macrocosm, before returning to the “trees”, the particular aspects, of the man-tree relationship. The global ecosystem is a garment for the divine energy that vivifies and existifies
[2] it. The energy is one, but the garments are many, rather like a single laser beam creating a hologram of a city or playing a DVD movie. To use a more natural metaphor, it’s like the roots that give life and stability to all the tree’s leaves and fruits, and thereby to the whole forest ecosystem, but in a hidden, indirect way.

Quantum cosmology places man squarely in the center of the universe. Rooted as we are, in the divine mind, we participate in the coming to be of the world in two ways: Through observership, and through our deeds.

Observership in science means the world exists because we are here to experience it. To the physicist, the world without man is only a set of hypothetical potentials until some conscious, free-willed observer (you or me) “collapses the wave function”, bringing our part of the cosmos into tangible being from its prior state of pure potential.

At a deeper level, it is our deeds that do the most to determine the quality of the world around us. Classical science taught us that our eyes and ears are merely receivers observing what exists “out there” already. Kabbalah’s view is actually more in tune with the quantum take on reality, which is that the means we choose to observe things actually transforms or molds the world into our chosen perspective.

The sages teach that each individual should say, “The world was created for my sake.”
[4] This is the idea of Tikun Olam, restoring, repairing and thereby improving the world. It is our mandate to manage our perceptions and participations in a positive way. In a sense, the world is really depending on it.

The Trees

To guide us in this monumental mission, Torah likens us to the trees. We too need to be well grounded, firm, stable. We too are empowered to refresh and stabilize the world around us. We need to be open and responsive to the world around us, yet provide a protected environment for those who take shelter in our shade. More than that, we are to emulate the fruit tree, even more than the tree of the field. Others should be able to take pleasure and derive sustenance from our good deeds, likened to fruits, and through them our seeds will take root, re-establishing the garden of goodness from whence we came.

Like a drop of water reflects the whole environment around it, an individual person reflects the entire ecosphere. The global ecosystem has four primary componenets: inanimate, vegetative, animal and human, and in parallel, a person is similarly composed. Physically, we are comprised of chemicals (inanimate matter), we grow like plants, we move at will like animals, and on top of it all, we think and speak, which distinguishes us as human.

The soul too has its four components, parallel to those in the ecosphere. Our spiritual counterpart of the plant kingdom is the world of emotions. The spiritual parallel of the animal kingdom is intellect.

Emotions are innate. It’s just the way we are: Our loves and fears are fixed parts of our personality, rather like the tree that has its characteristic look and location. Feelings do grow and mature with time, but otherwise remain the same. Intellect is something else. Our thoughts and ideas range all over the map, roaming like animals, flitting like birds. We can even entertain notions that are exactly opposite of what we believe.

Although a person is comprised of both, what really distinguishes humans is intellect. That being the case, so why does the Torah refer to man as a tree, addressing specifically the emotional qualities?

To understand this, we should think about food. Man’s sustenance is more from the plant kingdom than from the animal. The major staples in the world are wheat, corn, and rice, not fish, meat, eggs or dairy. In spiritual terms, this indicates that society depends not so much on our brains but more on our decency, our midot-attributes. For example, a man’s actual respect for life and property is much more valuable to society than his ideas on the subject. Thus the importance of the plant level over the animal level in the life of man.

Our deeds follow from our attitude. In turn, those attitudes are influenced by our ideas and knowledge. But sometimes there is a disconnect between our ideals and our feelings. It’s for moments like this that the torah asks, “”Is a man a tree of the field?” Does our philosophy of life penetrate our practical priorities? Do we just talk the talk or do we also walk the walk?

[5] teaches that intellect has two aspects. There is an intellectual quality that is connected with our feelings and another that is so pure, it is entirely abstracted from our emotions entirely. You would think that all we need for personal and social wellness is the first type, intelligence applied to character development. But that’s not true.

The problem is that this applied level of intellect is ineffective against emotional  dysfunction. If a person is habitually anxious or depressed, one must engage the second level, the deepest essence of intellect, its interface with the divine, and that helps in two ways. First, it illumines even the darkest recesses of the heart, and second, it heals and transforms them into healthy and fruitful qualities of the soul.

This brings the human ecosystem to wholeness and completion, an integration of spirit, mind, and body, for the benefit of ourselves, those around us, and the world as a whole.


[1] Deuteronomy 20:19
[2] ‘existifies’ is coined here as meaning ‘to bring into existence ex nihilo continually’.
[3] Similar to the prayers that refer to G-d as ‘vivifying all’ and ‘renewing in His goodness, every day, continuously, the doing of Creation.’
[4] “Bishvili nivra ha’olam.” Talmud Sanhedrin 37
[5] The most rarefied form of Kabbalah
[6] The concepts in this essay are based on Likutei Sichos, Vol. 4, p. 1114-1120.

Dr. Aryeh (Arnie) Gotfryd, PhD is a chassid, environmental scientist, author and educator living near Toronto, Canada. To contact, read more or to book him for a talk, visit or call 416-858-9868



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