Israel and the Tree of Life

Dear Friends,


Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, begins on Sunday night, February 8th. In honor of Tu B’Shvat, I will begin to discuss the relationship of Israel to the “Tree of Life” – a term which appears in the following description of the Garden of Eden:


“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). These words reveal that the human being was given the mission to nurture and protect all life in the Garden. The human being, however, became involved in self-gratification through eating from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which the human being perceived as “tempting to the sight” (Genesis 3:6). The human being, who was created to be a “giver” to the Garden, ended up becoming a “taker” from the Garden. The human being was therefore sent out of the Garden, and the Torah records the following Divine statement regarding this exile from the Garden:


“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 states 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)


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 hold fast to it” (Proverbs 3:18). In its 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 Shimonion 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. The mission to “serve” the Garden is a prototype of the mitzvos which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves, while the mission to “guard” the Garden is a prototype of the mitzvos which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world, including ourselves. (Tikunei Zohar 55)


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 messianic age:


“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 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 two previous letters of the series, "My Search for the Soul of Zion,” 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 note 3 at the end of this essay for the links to these two letters.) 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.”  


Life and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen   (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. We express our yearning for eternal life on this earth in the following opening words of a special Kaddish – prayer of sanctification:


May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world which will be renewed, and where He will resurrect the dead and raise them up to eternal life, and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and complete the Temple within it.


This special Kaddish is chanted at the burial of a deceased person’s body, and it serves as a reminder that we will regain eternal life on this earth. It is also chanted when a tractate of the Talmud is completed – a reminder that the study and fulfillment of Torah leads to eternal life.


2. Regarding Gentiles who fulfill the universal moral code within the Torah, the sages state: “The Chassidim among the nations have a share in the World to Come” (Tosefta 13:1, Sanhedrin). Ramban explains that “World to Come” refers to the future age of eternal life on this earth following the Resurrection of the Dead (Sha’ar Ha’Gmul 17).  A similar explanation of “World to Come” is given by Rabbi Ovadia from Bartenura in his commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. 


The commentator, Tiferes Yisrael, explains that the World to Come refers to the “coming eternity” which includes the reward of the souls after the death of the body, as well as the reward of the body after the Resurrection of the Dead. (Commentary to Sanhedrin 10:1)


In another section of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yaakov discusses the World to Come (Pirkei Avos 3:21,22, or in some editions, 3:16,17). In his commentary on Rabbi Yaakov’s teachings, the commentator, Tosfos Yom Tov, cites the following teaching of Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel: The World to Come can be explained as a reference to the world that the soul enters after it leaves the body, or as a reference to the future world on this earth after the Resurrection.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the World to Come denotes a two-fold future:


A. The bliss into which the soul of the human being enters, when, immediately after the death of the body, it departs from earth


B. The coming of the kingdom of happiness, perfection, and peace which Hashem will establish on earth – the final purpose of all human progress and development


(From Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary on the introductory teaching to “Pirkei Avos”)


3. The following are direct links to two previous letters which discuss Torah teachings which reveal that the story of our people represents the human story:


The above teachings were sent out by the e-mail Torah study program, “Hazon – Our Universal Vision”:

Hazon - Our Universal Vision