"A righteous person will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall." (Psalm 92:13)
The date palm is a tree which gives forth sweet and nutritious fruits, and as the classical commentator, Rashi, explains, the palm tree flourishes when it gives forth its life-giving fruits. Through its song, the date palm is conveying to us the following message: When you see my special strength, you are seeing the special strength of the "tzadik" - righteous person. For just as I give forth sweet fruits which nurture and prolong life, so too, the words and deeds of the righteous person are sweet and nutritious "fruits" which nurture and prolong life.
The song of the date palm is taken from Psalm 92, and this song does not speak about the righteous person in the present tense; it does not state, "A righteous person flourishes like a date palm, like a cedar in Lebanon, he is tall." Instead, it speaks in the future tense by saying that the righteous person "will flourish" and "will grow tall." This alludes to the idea that righteous people are in a process of growth, and they are always striving to produce new "fruits"; thus, in its description of the righteous, Psalm 92 adds, "They will still be fruitful in old age; they will be full of sap and freshness" (verse 15).
I have a Jewish friend who is in his late 50's, and during the last decade, he has been seriously exploring his spiritual roots. The more he studied Torah, the more aware he became of the spiritual potential of the Jewish people. He then realized that the best way for us to contribute to the world is through developing this potential. He decided that he wanted to devote the future to teaching others about our spiritual heritage, and he therefore enrolled in a special program that will give him a degree in Jewish education. Not long after he told me about his decision, I heard a story about an African-American women, age 56, who has begun to study Judaism in order to convert. There are also stories of people who "retired" at the age of 65, and who began a new life of spiritual growth through study and/or community service. All these stories serve as a reminder that we can develop the strength of the date palm and continue to produce spiritual fruits throughout our lives. During our older years, we can be, in the spiritual sense, "full of sap and freshness," perhaps even more than when we were younger! As Bob Dylan used to sing, "But I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."
Within the song of the date palm, we can find a special message of hope for people who are unable to have children and thereby fulfill the mitzvah to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). Such individuals may often feel that they are like a barren tree which produces no fruits. Many centuries ago, the Prophet Isaiah addressed this concern when he proclaimed the following Divine message to those without children: "Let not the barren one say, 'Behold I am a shriveled tree' " (Isaiah 56:3). After conveying this Divine message, the Prophet adds:
"For thus said the Compassionate One to the barren ones who observe My Sabbaths and choose what I desire, and tightly grasp My covenant. In My house and within My walls, I will give them a place of honor and renown, which is better than sons and daughters; eternal renown will I give them, which will never be terminated." (ibid 56:4,5)
People who are unable to have children are not to consider themselves to be "shriveled trees." If they do what the Compassionate One desires, then they can be compared to fruitful trees, such as the date palm. Their "fruits" are the good and holy deeds which they perform through fulfilling the teachings of the Torah – our Covenant with the Compassionate One. These fruits are "better than sons and daughters," and the Midrash elaborates on this idea:
Rabbi Judah Ben Shalom, the Levite, said that when a person departs from the world without children, he is troubled and weeps. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, says to him: "Why do you weep? Is it because you did not leave fruits in this world? You have left fruits which are more valuable than children!" The person then asks: "Master of the Universe, what fruits have I left?" And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, answers: "The fruits of Torah - the Tree of Life, as it is written (Proverbs 11:30): 'The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.' " (Midrash Tanchuma, Noah 2)
In his commentary on this verse from Proverbs, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains: "For the righteous person, everything he does is a tree of life. Out of his every deed grows something beneficial and life-giving to his surroundings" (From the Wisdom of Mishle, page 69). In the deepest sense, a righteous person is never barren, for such a person "will flourish like a date palm."
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. It is interesting that in the song of the date palm, we also find praise of the cedar tree: "like a cedar in the Lebanon, he will grow tall." The ArtScroll commentary writes: "Just as the palm tree includes the cedar in its praise, so the righteous are generous in praising others." ("The Lebanon" is a biblical term for a region of mountains in the north of the Land of Israel.)
2. According to the Talmud, the reason why the date palm and the cedar of the Lebanon are mentioned in the same song is because each has a quality which the other lacks (Ta'anis 25a &b). The date palm produces fruits, while the cedar does not. But when the date palm is cut down, its trunk dries in the ground. When the cedar of the Lebanon is felled, however, its roots and stumps remain alive and a new cedar shoot will sprout in its place. According to the Etz Yosef commentary on the Talmud, this power of renewal within the cedar of the Lebanon represents the power of renewal in the "tzadik" – righteous person. As it is written, "For though the tzadik may fall seven times, he will arise, but the wicked will stumble through evil" (Proverbs 24:16).
There is a beautiful explanation of this verse by the rebbe of my rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, a leading sage who headed the Chaim Berlin Yeshiva. Rav Hutner explains that the real meaning of this verse is not that the tzadik manages to rise again after falling seven times, but that the essence of the tzadik's rising is through his seven falls. Through these falls, he gains new insights and strengths which enable him to rise higher. (Pachad Yitzchak – Letters and Writings, p. 217)
3. The previous letters in our new series - "Relating to Other Creatures" – now appear in the lower section of the archive on our website.