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Why are Trees a Problem?

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, so you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 16:20)

Simple enough. Justice is important. But this is the Torah, and when two verses are next to each other, some kind of a connection is implied. But the next verse is about trees!

You shall not plant for yourself any kind of idolatrous tree beside the altar of the LORD your God, which you shall make for yourself.  (Deut. 16:21)

Why? What is wrong with a tree?

Actually, the Torah has no problem with trees – qua trees. We like trees, in general. We are even forbidden by the Torah to cut down fruit trees. The problem is when a tree is located in a place where we pray and connect with G-d.

Among all of its notable features, it is a curiosity that there is no visible wood – no growing things at all – in the tabernacle. Everything that is made of wood is sheathed or covered in copper or silver or gold. Everything that we see of the tabernacle has to be manmade. Which leads to the same question: what is wrong with trees or wood in the tabernacle?

The answer, I feel, can be explained by the preceding verse, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” And here is why: We go to a holy place for a connection to the divine, to reach out for inspiration, even for wisdom. We strain to hear the “still small voice.” Our gaze incorporates all that we see.

The presence of wood, or a tree, might lead us into thinking that trees can be a source of inspiration. This is hardly an odd idea when one considers that the first trees in the Torah (the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) were described as having life-changing powers. If we had a tree next to the altar, we might be thinking about those early trees, the power inherent in trees, and the natural forces that they represent – nature itself.

Nature also clearly has its own laws. Nature is its own system, modellable (at least to some extent) using the natural sciences of biology and chemistry and physics. As attractive as those sciences are, and as comprehensive and seductive as the mathematics that describes those sciences can be, any law we can derive from nature ends where humanity begins.

In nature, might makes right. The young kill the old. Life has no intrinsic value, and events things like sunlight or storms or avalanches or rainfall all seem to happen for no moral or underlying reason that is connected to mankind. The Torah is telling us that we must not look to nature to help us define justice.

Justice in the Torah values every human life, as the host for a spark of the divine spirit – even the newborn, or the old, or the infirm or handicapped – as well as the powerless widow or orphan. Eugenics is perfectly sensible in a rational world. It is Torah Justice that rejects the way in which nature seems to pick winners and losers, that says that each person, no matter how fast or strong or smart they might be, is equal in the eyes of the law.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Because living in the Land of Israel does not mean becoming subordinate to and in service of nature; if we want to merit to live in G-d’s land we must seek our inspiration from a relationship with the divine, not with nature.

Comments are welcome!