What is a tree? by Rabbi David Kasher (re-posted)

by faithgibson on September 16, 2016

BUBER’S TREE – Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi David Kasher 

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What is a tree?

That almost-too-simple question has the Biblical commentators all in a tizzy this week. Their problem is not botanical, however – it is linguistic. It is the strange phrasing of a verse in Parshat Shoftim {i.e. weekly Torah reading} that has prompted a great deal of speculation on the nature of trees.

That verse appears in the midst one of the commandments in the laws of war, which dictates that, when in a prolonged battle against a city, one may not cut down its fruit trees. This seems, at first, to be a practical warning. Do not get so caught up in destruction that you foolishly destroy a useful food resource. But then there is a strangely poetic line that suggests some other ethic may be at play.

For a person is a tree of the field, withdrawing before you into the siege. (Deut. 20:19)

כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה, לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר

A person is a tree of the field? Whatever does that mean? And why exactly would it keep you from chopping down fruit trees? If the verse had read, “a tree is a person,” that might mean that a tree deserves the same compassion as an innocent person. But this says the opposite: “a person is a tree.” How are we to understand that?

Rashi deals with the difficulty by reading the verse as a question – and an incredulous one at that. So we read the same words, but like this:

For a person is a tree of the field, withdrawing before you into the siege?!

Or, to fit it better to English grammar, the verse as Rashi is reading it, is asking, “So you think this tree is a person, who has the ability to run from you when you come to chop it down?!” And the answer, of course, is: “No!” A tree is not a person, it has no legs, and cannot flee like your enemy can, so you cannot treat it like just another combatant. You must have sympathy for the poor, immobile tree – this living thing that never asked to go to war.

But Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra does not like this reading. Because it puts the verse at odds with the rest of the passage, which gives no indication of compassion for trees. After all, you are allowed to cut down regular, non-fruit-bearing trees. So the law seems specifically designed to serve human interest.

What then, of the person being a tree of the field? Here is Ibn Ezra’s answer:

“For a person is a tree of the field,” meaning, the life of a person comes from the trees of the field.

כי האדם עץ השדה והטעם כי חיי בן אדם הוא עץ השדה

Okay, so the Ibn Ezra found a way to read this line that matches the context. “A person is a tree of the field,” is shorthand for “A person is able to be a person because of the sustenance they get from the trees of the field.”

So Ibn Ezra takes the verse as a practical lesson in resource-management, whereas Rashi hears the Torah calling on us to feel compassion for the plant world. But both interpretations require a strained reading of the verse itself. Rashi has to read it as a rhetorical question. And Ibn Ezra’s reading requires us to insert a whole new thought, an implied causal relationship between the life of the tree and the life of the person.

The other thing that Ibn Ezra and Rashi have in common is a fundamental presumption of human superiority.

For Ibn Ezra, the tree is only there to service the human being. Rashi does call on us to care for the tree, but from a place of pity for a lesser creature. In both readings, the person is clearly greater than the tree.

A bit ironic, when the words of the verse themselves seemed to equate a person to a tree.

There is one Jewish thinker, however, who did describe the possibility of an equal relationship between humans and trees. It is the twentieth-century philosopher Martin Buber, and he was not commenting directly on our verse in Deuteronomy. The description appears, instead, in a classic passage from his most famous work, I and Thou. 

The fundamental premise of the book is that we encounter the world in two different ways: In the I-Itencounter, we experience things outside of ourselves as objects, from which we are totally separate; In the I-Thouencounter, we turn toward those outside of us as The Other, in a true and mutual relationship. What is the difference? Buber’s first illustration of the two forms of encounter is with – you guessed it – a tree:

I contemplate a tree.

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.

I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.

I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law  – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.

Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

That is the I-It encounter, in which the tree remains an object of my contemplation. This is Ibn Ezra, who regards the tree as a source of nutrients, to be harvested for his purpose. But it is also Rashi, who does consider the experience of the tree, but from a place of observation from above: What kind of life-form is this? What is are its conditions and capabilities? What is my ethical obligation to this thing?

Buber continues, however, with the possibility of another kind of encounter with the tree:

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me…

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.

Relation is reciprocity. We stand in a mutual relationship, so we owe each other full recognition. When I encounter the tree, I do not merely encounter it as a tree, but as another being, it its fullness. And that Other is also encountering my whole being, in its fullness. The tree is relating to me as well! Does that imply that the tree is conscious and aware, like a person? Buber does not commit to that much:

Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

Who knows what the tree truly perceives? The point is, however, that we can relate to the tree fully, as a unique living entity, standing across from us, calling out to us with the fullness of its being. We relate to it as fully as we might relate to a person. Perhaps, in such an encounter, Buber could read our verse plainly, in the most straightforward meaning of its words:

For a person is a tree of the field.

A person it is. That is, it is another being, like myself. I am related to it, and it is related to me.

Now, how can I cut down such a one?

Was Buber thinking of the verse in Deuteronomy when he wrote this passage? Who knows. But we do know that he was a Biblical scholar and translator. He surely knew our verse well, had read it many times.

And I suspect that, unlike the many commentators who had come before him, Martin Buber was able to read this verse with no great difficulty. For where they had all read it and asked, “What is a tree to us?” Buber asked instead, “Who is this tree to me?” And he imagined the tree facing back towards him, like a person, asking in return, “And who are you?”

All of this may sound quite strange – nearly mystical. But the Buberian approach has one important real-world implication for our soldier that the other interpretations lack. For if I can come to feel this sense of relationship to a tree, what will happen when I turn to face my enemy, another human being? If I can recognize and be recognized by a being in the natural world, how much more profound will be the recognition I find in another person like me? In fact, in his book, Buber moves directly from the tree passage to consider the same kind of encounter with a person:

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

Human beings, too, can be objectified – categorized, quantified, and held at a distance. They must be so reduced, if they are to be fought in battle, and killed. But like the tree – more than the the tree – every person can also be seen in the fullness of their being – recognized, met, and drawn into relationship. This person, like the tree, “confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it.” 

For a person is my enemy. A person like me.

Now, how can I cut down such a one?

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