Family Tree

January 2, 2022 by Lazer Brody

Sunday night marks the new Hebrew month of Shvat. According to the School of Shammai, this is the New Year for Trees. According to the School of Hillel, the New Year for Trees is the 15th of Shvat, or “Tu B’Shvat.” At any rate, we learn from the trees how to relate to our children.

The Family Tree

The Torah tells us that “Man is a tree in the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19). Interestingly, we automatically refer to our ancestral background as “the family tree.” Notice that tree branches project out from trunk, from bottom to top. Subsequently, twigs project from the branches. This is the above-ground picture. Below the ground, the root system that like an upside-down tree, but branches out from top to bottom. Families also branch out in two directions. From us to our children to our grandchildren resembles the tree branching out from the trunk above ground. Yet, our parents, grandparents, and successive previous generations are our “roots” below ground, which we don’t always see.

Tree Health – a Metaphor about Family

Yet, the concept of family tree goes much deeper. Any change at the base of the trunk has a profound effect on the branches. The branches subsequently affect the twigs, and ultimately on the leaves and fruit. For example, suppose that a tree farmer sees that the branches are brittle. The leaves are yellowish and the color of the fruit is pale. This shows that the tree is suffering from an acute lack of iron. All the farmer has to do is to give the tree an adequate dose of iron at the base of the trunk. Together with a good dose of water, here’s what happens:

The iron-fortified water is absorbed from the soil into the roots of the tree. It now travels up through the trunk, the branches, the twigs and to the fruit and leaves by way of long thin tubes called xylem.

Water and nutrients move up the xylem through a process called capillary action. Capillary action allows water to be pulled through the thin tubes because the molecules of the water are attracted to the molecules that make up the tube. The water molecules at the top are pulled up the tube. Then, the water molecules below them are pulled along because of their attraction to the water molecules above them. As such, the iron-fortified water reaches the furthest extremities of the tree and replenishes them. Soon, the branches become stronger, the leaves greener, and the fruit brighter.

The Deeds of Parents

The amazing Divine-engineered process of capillary action moves nutrients and water from the soil and trunk up through the tree. In parenting, we have an equivalent spiritual process called in Hebrew, Ma’ase Avot Siman L’banim. This means, “the deeds of parents are signs for their children.” The message is that a generation’s actions have a profound effect on future generations.

The Story of Choni HaMa’agal

The Gemara tells a poignant story about trees and concern for future generations in a tale about the great righteous sage, Choni HaMa’agal (see tractate Taanit 23a):

Rebbe Yochanan says that Choni HaMa’agal was sorry all his life that he didn’t comprehend a certain verse from Psalms. Psalm 126 states, “When Hashem returns us to Zion, we will have been as dreamers.” In other words, the Babylonian exile which lasted 70 years, will have been like one long sleep. “Could it be,” Choni asked, “that a person can sleep continuously for 70 years?”

One day, as he was walking, he saw a man planting a carob tree. “How long will it be,” he asked the man, “before this tree produces fruit?”

“Seventy years,” the man answered.

“And are you certain you will still be alive then?” Choni HaMa’agal asked.

“I was born into a world with carob trees,” the man answered. “Just as my fathers planted trees for me to enjoy, so I plant trees for my children.”

Choni HaMa’agal then sat down a little distance away, to eat his meal. He ate, then dozed off. A wall of rock sprung up around him, and concealed him from view. No one could find him, and so he slept for 70 years.

When he awoke from his sleep, he saw the same man picking carobs from the tree he had planted.

“Are you the man that planted this tree?” he asked him.

“No,” answered the man, “I am his grandson.”

“I see,” said Choni HaMa’agal, “that I must have slept for 70 years.” He then noticed that his donkey had been given birth to donkeys, who in turn, gave birth to still other donkeys…

The Takeaway

Our grandchildren eat the fruit we plant. Spiritually speaking, here’s what happens when we strengthen ourselves in emuna. We see how our spiritual fortification (just like the iron-fortified water) nourishes future generations, moving up through the family tree’s tradition of parent to child just like a spiritual xylem. As such, we are able to strengthen future generations by strengthening ourselves. Have a wonderful new month of Av and a very fruitful 2022.

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