As we discussed in this series, the World Zionist Organization became dominated by leaders who sought to have nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding inner spirit of our people. The Jewish men and women of Old Jerusalem were among the strongest opponents of this secular goal. A major reason for their strong opposition can be found in the following statement of King Solomon regarding our need for the Torah:
“It is a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18)
Torah – the Divine Teaching – is a “tree of life”; thus, the attempts by the secular Zionist leaders to weaken our grasp of this “tree” were viewed by the men and women of Old Jerusalem as dangerous actions which would cut our people off from the life-giving Divine Teaching!
In order to better understand their concern, we need to gain a deeper understanding of how Torah is a tree of life. Our discussion will begin with the following passage about the Garden of Eden where the Tree of Life is mentioned:
“And Hashem God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and placed there the human being whom He had formed. Hashem God caused to sprout from the ground every tree that was delightful to the sight and good for food; also the Tree of Life in the middle of the Garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.” (Genesis 2:8,9)
The Torah also states that the human being was placed in the Garden l’avdah u’l’shamrah – “to serve it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). The human being was therefore given the mission to serve as the custodian of the Garden; moreover, the human being was given permission to eat from all the trees, with the exception of the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 2:16,17).
The human being, however, became involved in self-gratification through eating from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (Genesis 3:6). The human being was supposed to focus on “giving” to the Garden; instead, the human being began to focus on “taking” from the Garden.
The human being was therefore sent out of the Garden of Eden, and the Torah records the following Divine statement regarding this exile of the human being:
“Lest he put forth his hand and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).
The Tree of Life offers eternal life on this earth. The human being, who was given the mission to nurture and protect life, could have eaten from the Tree of Life, but through choosing to engage in selfish self-gratification, the human being lost this opportunity. The Midrash therefore teaches in the name of Rabbi Akiva:
The Omnipresent One set before the human being two paths - the path of life and the path of death – and the human being chose the latter. (Genesis Rabbah 21:5 – Rashi on the Midrash)
This tragic choice, however, is not the end of the story, for Hashem – the Compassionate, and Life-Giving One – enables us to regain eternal life through fulfilling the Torah. This is why the Torah is described in the following manner: “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18). In its poetic commentary on this statement, the Midrash states in the name of Rabbi Yudan:
Why is the Torah compared to the Tree of Life? Just as the Tree of Life is spread over the Garden of Eden, so too, the Torah is spread over all of life and brings one under the Tree of Life. (Yalkut Shimoni on Proverbs, 934)
The Torah helps us to regain access to the “Tree of Life” through returning to the original human mission to nurture and protect life. How does the Torah help us to return to our original mission? There is an ancient teaching which reveals that the mission to “serve and protect” God’s Garden is a prototype of all the mitzvos of the Torah – mitzvos which relate to every area of life! The mission to “serve” the Garden is a prototype of the mitzvos which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate life, while the mission to “guard” the Garden is a prototype of the mitzvos which prohibit actions which damage and degrade life. (Tikunei Zohar 55)
As the above Midrash stated: Just as the Tree of Life is spread over the Garden of Eden, so too, the Torah is spread over all of life and brings one under the Tree of Life.
I discovered a hopeful message regarding our future access to the Tree of Life in the following Divine promise regarding the life of our people in the Land of Zion during the future age of enlightenment and redemption:
“The days of My people will be like the days of the Tree” (Isaiah 65:22).
I asked myself: “Which tree is this Divine promise referring to? I checked the commentary of Rashi, and he cites the following translation of “Targum Yonasan”: The Tree of Life. Is this an allusion to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden – the Tree which is associated with eternal Life? If so, then is Hashem promising us that in the future age of enlightenment and redemption, we will regain eternal life on earth? In my search for an answer, I discovered the following teaching which the Zohar (Genesis 38a) cites in the name of Rabbi Elazar:
In the future, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will fix the world and set a new spirit within human beings so that they will have eternal length of days, as it is written: “The days of My people will be like the days of the Tree” (Isaiah 65:22), and “He will eliminate death forever; and the Master of All, Hashem God, will erase tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
In a previous letter of this series, I cited teachings which reveal that the story of Israel’s exile from the Land and eventual return to the Land represents the story of humanity’s exile from the Garden of Eden and eventual return to the Garden. (See the note at the end of this essay for the link to this letter.) The idea that our story represents the human story leads to the following question: When Israel will live forever in the future age of redemption, will humanity also live forever? Based on the above prophecy of Isaiah regarding the end of death and the erasing of all tears, the Midrash states the following teaching of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi:
There will be no death in the future that is to come – neither for Israel, nor for the nations of the world, as it states that Hashem will erase tears from “all” faces. (Genesis Rabbah 26:2 – the version cited in Sefer Chassidim 368, and in the commentary of Rabbi Joseph Kara on Isaiah 25:8)
In the future, “Torah will go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:3), and “the earth be filled with the knowledge of Hashem” (Isaiah 11:9). Israel, followed by other nations, will therefore regain eternal life through the Torah, which is described as “a tree of life.”
This “tree of life” was the beloved tree of Old Jerusalem.
Life and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The following is a direct link to a previous letter which discusses Torah teachings which reveal that the story of our people represents the human story. This letter can also be sent to you via e-mail upon request: