For Global Peace with Social Justice in a Sustainable Environment
Trees and life
Michael M. Cohen JPost Dec. 6, 2020
The trauma of the Akeida, Isaac’s binding on the sacrificial altar by his father, Abraham, scars Isaac for the rest of his life.
That wound is passed on to his son Jacob, who calls God “Pahad Yitzhak,” “the fear of Isaac” (Genesis 31:42).
Does the Jewish people continue to carry that wound?
In his poem Heritage, Haim Gouri writes, “But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring. They are born with a knife in their hearts.”
Human pathos emerges from reading the Akeida. Expanding from that response, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai challenges us: “The real hero of the Binding of Isaac was the ram, who didn’t know about the collusion between the others. He was volunteered to die instead of Isaac.”
Echoing Amichai’s sentiment, Jeremy Benstein asks, “Who is the Tanach’s first killer? If you said Cain, you’re off by a few verses. It was Abel, who slaughtered lambs for his sacrifice.”
Both writers ask us to expand our vista outside our human silo. What would that mean for this week’s parasha? A river, sunrise, and trees.
As Jacob approaches his brother, Esau, he “was greatly frightened” (ibid. 32:8) and “crossed the point of crossing/the ford/ma’avar of the Jabbok” (ibid. 32:23).
Rivers are boundaries. River crossings in religious and secular texts often symbolize leaving one status, one identity, for another. Think of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. For Rabbi Norman Cohen, “The Jabbok was to be Jacob’s Rubicon!” Shortly after Jacob reaches the other side, he wrestles with “a divine being” (ibid. 32:29), who changes his name from Jacob to Israel. Jacob’s wrestling match lasted “until the break of dawn” (ibid. 32:25), when he received his new name.
Bob Dylan sings, “They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.” That popular concept was first coined in 1650 by English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller in his religious travelogue “A Pisgah sight of Palestine and the confines thereof: with the history of the Old and New Testament acted thereon.”
While a popular concept, it is not true. The darkness of night is the period when the sun is 18 degrees or more below the horizon. There are, in fact, seven stages of dawn from the time the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon until the sun rises above the horizon. When our parasha (Torah portion) talks about “until the break of dawn” (ibid. 32:25), “dawn is breaking” (ibid. 32:27), and “the sun rose” (ibid. 32:32), it acknowledges some of those stages.
In the Mishnaic (Berachot 1:3) and Talmudic discussions (Berachot 9b) regarding when the morning Shema prayer can be recited, the answers given reflect those different stages of dawn. The question for the rabbis is when is there enough light in the unfolding dawn so that the Shema can be recited. They conclude this to be “from the time that one can distinguish one’s friend at a distance of four cubits.”
Commenting on Jacob’s wrestling match, Jungian analyst and Episcopal priest John Sandford writes in his book The Man Who Wrestled With God: Light from the Old Testament on the Psychology of Individuation:
“Evidently it was the kind of spiritual encounter that vanishes with the light of day, for it is a fact that our minds are different at night, closer to the primitive level, and there are psychological experiences that occur in the darkness but vanish with the dawn....
“Jacob refused to part with his experience until he knew its meaning, and this marked him as a person of spiritual greatness. Everyone who wrestles with their spiritual and psychological experience and, no matter how dark or frightening it is, refuses to let go until they discover its meaning is having something of the Jacob experience.”
Later in the parasha, trees are introduced, juxtaposed with God reaffirming Jacob’s name change. “God said to him, ‘You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10). In the lines immediately preceding that pronouncement, we read, “Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried below Bethel under the oak, and its name was called Allon-bacuth/Oak of Weeping” (ibid. 35:8).
Four lines earlier we find another tree, “the terebinth near Shechem” (35:4), mentioned. In fact, many trees are mentioned in the area of Shechem. There, Joshua “took a great stone and set it up at the foot of the oak” (Joshua 24:26), and Abimelech was crowned king “at the terebinth of the pillar” (Judges 9:6). In addition, near Shechem was “the terebinth of the soothsayers” (ibid. 9:37) and “the terebinth of Moreh/Teaching” (Genesis 12:6), which Abraham came to as he arrived there.
South of Shechem “between Ramah and Bethel,” the Prophetess Deborah would judge the people while “sitting under a palm tree of Deborah” (Judges 4:4-5).
Trees play an important role throughout the Bible, beginning with the Garden of Eden and its tree of life and tree of knowledge of good and bad (Genesis 2:9).
Associating trees with knowledge, life, wisdom, power, and judgment is intentional. We see trees as an axis mundi, a cosmic connection between the heavens and the earth, if you will: an umbilical cord with its branches connected to the life-affirming placenta of the heavens; the trunk of the tree the umbilical cord itself; and its roots in the soil, nurturing us, as we are formed by God “of dust from the soil” (ibid. 2:7).
Trees, sunrise and a river’s ford, which we have examined in the context of this week’s parasha, all act as bridges connecting one domain, one reality, to another.
By stepping outside our human orientation as we focus on those three elements, we gain deeper insights into the world we inhabit and what it means to be human. Think what we can learn, in this age of polarization, if we allow ourselves to step outside our comfort zones. A new day might dawn in the shadow of a tree on a river’s edge.■
The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.
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