Picture of the author
Picture of the author

Three Layers of Human Identity

The Human Tree

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • February 4, 2015
  • |
  • 15 Sh'vat 5775
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Why is the human being compared, in the biblical imagination, to a tree?

The Human Tree

“The human being is a tree of the field (1),” the Torah states. In fact, the Jewish calendar reserves one day each year, the “New Year for Trees” on the 15th of Shevat, for us to contemplate our affinity with the botanical universe.

Why is the human being compared, in the biblical imagination, to a tree?

Roots, Body & Fruit

A tree’s primary components are the roots, which anchor it to the ground and supply it with water and other nutrients; the trunk, branches, and leaves that comprise its body; and the fruit, which is harvested and enjoyed by humans or animals and also contains the seeds through which the tree can reproduce.

This is why the Torah compares us to trees because a human being is also comprised of three components: roots, a body, and fruit. This comparison holds true on three levels: psychologically, chronologically, and spiritually.

The roots of the tree, buried underground and mostly invisible, represent the subconscious layers of the human psyche, which are for the most part invisible. Just like the roots of a tree, the composition, breadth, and depth of the human subconscious are disguised and constitute the roots of all manifestations of the human self.

The body of the tree – the conspicuous manifestation of its roots -- symbolizes the conscious personality of the human being, the way we describe our existence consciously to ourselves. It is the “person” you (think you) know.

The fruit of the tree – harvested and consumed by others – represents the impact we have on the lives of people around us; our power to plant a seed in a fellow human being and see it sprout, grow and bear fruit. 

Childhood, Adulthood & Leadership

On a chronological level, the roots represent the childhood years, when our subconscious convictions and feelings are being molded, which is why investing time and energy in children is the noblest and critical endeavor. A scratch on the trunk does not amount to much; a defect in the roots can impact the entire tree. The significance of childhood is often invisible like the roots of a tree, but it is the foundation of everything that comes later. Nurture those roots and your tree will be beautiful.

As we graduate from childhood and become self-efficient humans, we are compared to the tall and projective trunk of the tree. At last, we have emerged to become independent and self-standing adults.

Then, as we grow older and become leaders in our communities, as we marry, bear children and create something larger than ourselves, we begin to produce “fruit” that continue to procreate and impact generations to come. 

Conviction, Study & Giving 

On a spiritual level, the roots represent faith, our source of nurture and perseverance. The trunk is the visible “body” of our spiritual lives — our intellectual, emotional, and practical achievements; our study of Torah, observance of mitzvot, and daily positive actions. Finally, the fruit represents our power of spiritual procreation — the ability to influence others, to plant seeds in others' souls, to inspire them to grow and cast their light on the world.

Faith, just like roots, constitutes the foundation of life (without roots, a tree cannot survive). Our emunah, faith, the essential organic spirituality and meaning of life are the foundation of our entire “tree.” From it stems the trunk of our understanding, from which branch out our feelings, motivations, and deeds. Yet the true extent of faith is concealed from others and even from ourselves (2).

“The human being is a tree of the field.” We operate on three levels. There is who we are (the roots); who we think we are (the trunk), and who others think we are (the fruit). In a tree, the three components are integrated into a single, wholesome entity. Our job, the Torah is intimating, is to integrate the components of our “tree,” so that our roots, bodies, and fruits become one (3).

Are You a Bird, a Wall, or a Tree?

There is another reason we are compared to a tree. There is an intriguing Midrash based on a verse in Psalms (Chapter 144) where King David states: "Yamav Ketzeil Oyver” - A person's years are like a passing shadow (4).

One of the great Talmudic sages, Rabbi Huna, in the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Bereishis 96:2) explains this verse to mean that there are three types of shadows. One is the shadow of a bird, which flies by quickly and casts its shadow for a fleeting moment. The second is the shadow cast by a wall, which has some permanence, as it is seen during the early hours of the morning and in the late afternoon, but in the midday sun, there is no wall-shadow.

Finally, there is the shadow generated by the tree, which is consistent throughout the day.

And Rabbi Huna continues: “Would that life was like the shadow cast by a wall or a tree, but it is like the shadow of a bird in flight,” -- "Yamav Ketzeil Oyver” - A persons years are like a passing shadow.

What does this mean? How is it that our days are likened to the fleeting shadow of a bird, which doesn't remain stationary for a moment? After all, our days, though relatively few, still have some degree of continuity and permanence. People live seventy, eighty, even 100 years. If, indeed, our days are as an insubstantial shadow, are they not at least like the shadow of a tree and not that of a bird?

Reflecting on Three Life-Styles

The message here is simple yet profound. The three types of shadows represent three very different lifestyles. There are people who generate the shadow of a bird, others who create the shadow of the wall while others who are compared to the tree and its shadow.

Every human being leaves an impact. Each of us casts our own inimitable shadow on our world.  “Life is a powerful play and you contribute your verse,” a poet once said. Each of us contributes our note to the ballad we call life. The question is, how profound and how real is our impact? Will my shadow be the one of a bird, a wall, or a tree?

Rabbi Huna says that there are those individuals whose life can be compared to the passing shadow of a flying bird. The bird flies and the shadow flies with it. This represents an individual whose impact is fleeting. He may live for many years and he may spend five decades building a business or a company, but this may prove one day to go down the tubes without true and lasting value. This person may have been very very busy, but essentially he is like a flying bird. He was not involved in anything which really left an impression, which made an eternal dent. He cast a shadow by virtue of being alive, of walking the street, of shopping in the store, of depositing money in his bank account, of selling a house, of tailoring his clothe and purchasing his car. But this shadow comes and goes.

How many people have shared their regrets over their past lifestyle? “I worked 13 hours a day for 10 years, I neglected my most important relationships, and for what? Where did all this work go to? Was what it invested in?”

Is Your Jar Full?

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was. 

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous "yes." 

The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

"Now," said the Professor, as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life.

"The golf balls are the important things - your deepest values, your G-d, your soul, your family, your children, your health, your friends, your passions, your conscience - things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.

"The pebbles are the other things that matter, your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else - the small stuff."

"If you put the sand into the jar first", he continued, "there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children, take time to build a relationship with your soul, with your spouse. There will always be time to clean the house, and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand."

When he had finished, there was a profound silence. Then one of the students raised her hand and with a puzzled expression, and inquired what the beer represented.

The Professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of L’chayim’s."

The Wall

There is a second category of people whose lives can be compared to the shadow of a wall. A shadow of a wall has some permanence, it is seen during the early hours of the morning and in the late afternoon, but in the midday sun, the impact of the wall fades; there is no wall-shadow.

These are people who leave an impact when there is no major heat and passion in their lives. When the game is waning and there is not much action going on they become sensible. In the morning and evening hours, when they are very young or quite old, when things are quiet and calm, they are ready to give of themselves to others and invest in eternity. As long a the sun in their life is burning hot, they are too caught up in themselves to reflect on how they are impacting others.

“When you’re coming home dad?” our children ask us. And the answer: When the sun begins to set. When I get older, and finally make it, when I retire, then I will begin to spend time with my children, with my soul, with my G-d, with my spouse.

The problem is that those who needed our shade and our comfort during those days, don’t need as much now when my sun has begun to set. I missed the opportunity…

Finally, there is a life that can be likened to the shadow of a tree. Under the branches of a tree, you can always find shade and comfort. No matter if it's morning, midday or evening, the tree always casts its healing shade and invites every passerby to bask in its tranquil and reinvigorating environment.

This represents the type of person who never ceases to remember that he or she is an ambassador of G-d at this very moment to bring light, clarity, and love to the people around him and her. No matter where he or she stands in life – if the sun is just rising, or it's fully aglow, or it is on its way down – this person never fails to serve as an agent of love, hope, and trust. This person does not get drunk on his own accomplishments but remembers his duty to those around him, to his loved ones, to the community, our nation, and our world.

The Talmud relates the following story:

An old man was planting a tree. A young person passed by and asked, What are you planting?

A carob tree, the old man replied.

Silly fool, said the youth. Don't you know that it takes 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit?

That's okay, said the old man. Just as others planted for me, I plant for future generations.

This is the question: are you and I “planting” something in our lives which our grandchildren will be able to look at and say, “thank you, grandpa, thank you, grandma?” That is why the Torah compared us to the tree in the field. 

There are people who never begin to live. There are people who are waiting till they can begin to live. And there are people who never stop living.

The Meaning of Life

On the first day, God created the dog and said: “Sit all day by the door of your house and bark at anyone who comes in or walks past. For this, I will give you a life span of twenty years.” 

The dog said: “That’s a long time to be barking. How about only ten years and I’ll give you back the other ten?”

So God agreed.

On the second day, God created the monkey and said: “Entertain people, do tricks, and make them laugh. For this, I’ll give you a twenty-year life span.”

The monkey said: “Monkey tricks for twenty years? That’s a pretty long time to perform. How about I give you back ten like the dog did?”

And God agreed.

On the third day, God created the cow and said: ”You must go into the field with the farmer all day long and suffer under the sun, have calves and give milk to support the farmer’s family For this, I will give you a life span of sixty years.”

The cow said: “That’s kind of a tough life you want me to live for sixty years. How about twenty and I’ll give back the other forty?”

And God agreed again.

On the fourth day, God created man and said: “Eat, sleep, play, marry and enjoy your life. For this, I’ll give you twenty years.”

But man said: “Only twenty years? Could you possibly give me my twenty, the forty the cow gave back, the ten the monkey gave back, and the ten the dog gave back; that makes eighty, okay?”

“Okay,” said God, “You asked for it.”

So that is why for our first twenty years we eat, sleep, play and enjoy ourselves. For the next forty years, we slave in the sun to support our family. For the next ten years, we do monkey tricks to entertain the grandchildren. And for the last ten years, we sit on the front porch and bark at everyone.

1) Deuteronomy 20:19. 2) While the body of the tree also provides nurture (via its leaves) – representing the nurture that comes from Torah and Mitzvos -- the bulk of our spiritual sustenance derives from its roots, from our conviction that life has meaning and that there is somebody at the core of reality that cares. 3) Part of this idea is based on a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe dated Shevat 21, 5704 (February 15, 1944), published in Igros Kodesh vol. 1 pp. 247-250. 4) 4) Cf: "Our days are as a shadow upon the earth." (Divrei HaYamim 1 29:15).



Please leave your comment below!

  • A

    Avrohom -5 years ago

    thanks for the wisdom! send more!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

15 Shevat Essay

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • February 4, 2015
  • |
  • 15 Sh'vat 5775
  • |
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Why is the human being compared, in the biblical imagination, to a tree?

Related Classes

Please help us continue our work
Sign up to receive latest content by Rabbi YY

Join our WhatsApp Community

Join our WhatsApp Community

Ways to get content by Rabbi YY Jacobson
Connect now
Picture of the authorPicture of the author