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Parshas Vayeira: Finding G-d in a Tree

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Nov 11, 2019
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In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayeira, we meet Avraham Avinu, our first father, in his role as a ba’al chessed par excellence.  The parsha opens with Avraham greeting, and welcoming, the guests to his tent (Ch.18).  Despite the pain of bris milah, on the third day of his recovery, at the age of ninety-nine years old, no less!, Avraham runs to greet his guests and fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.  He gives them water, a place to rest, and a delectable meal.  


Defining himself as a person of gemillus chassadim is the underlying theme of Avraham’s entire life.  Later in the parsha, the pasuk tells us: וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל, בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע; וַיִּקְרָא-שָׁם, and he (Avraham) planted an eishel, a tree, in Be’er Sheva, and from there he called in the name of G-d, G-d of the world (Bereishis 21:33).  What is the eishel, the tree, which he planted?  Rashi (ibid) quotes two opinions.  One is that he planted an orchard to bring fruits for his guests, and the other is that he erected an inn for lodging, and would give his guests in the inn to eat.


However, according to pshat (simple meaning of the verse), Avraham planted a tree, and from this tree, he proclaimed the name of G-d to the world.  What is the significance of planting a tree, and why does the Torah need to tell us of this seemingly insignificant detail?  


Rav Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “Why does the Torah bother to describe Avraham’s planting of a tree?  Moreover, how is ‘proclaiming the Name of Hashem, G-d of the universe’ related to this activity?  The Torah presents this detail because Avraham taught the world that through the tree, one could perceive the  RS”O (Master of the World).  G-d Himself controls the flowering and the growth of the tree, the falling and withering of its leaves in autumn, and the budding and growth of more leaves in the spring.  Organic life is revealed through the tree, and thus, through the tree, G-d is perceived as well.  Avraham’s greatness is based on the fact that he could understand this; through the world, through nature, he could discern what others could not.


“What does man truly understand of nature’s secrets or of life’s mysteries?  Can man begin to grasp the sheer magnitude of cosmic distance… As much as we progress scientifically, we will never reveal the great mysteries of creation.  Outside of the scientist’s immediate environment, outside of his own limited understanding, lies the mystery of infinity.


“In our obtuse society, man cannot see the Infinite, the Creator, nor can he sense Providence.  He thinks that all there is on earth is the little that physics, chemistry, and biology have described, and this knowledge is enough to understand the universe… The problem of modern man lies not in his quest for knowledge, but rather in his hubris.  He carries an air of arrogance, considering himself an all-capable superman, not being able to admit that he knows little and understands less.


“When three strangers neared his tent, Avraham did not immediately recognize them as angels.  The first request he had of them was to wash their feet, since, according to Chazal, he thought they were nomads who worshiped the dust of their feet.  He assumed that these strangers were like so many of his unperceiving contemporaries, who could not grasp the existence of more than what the hand could touch or the eye could see.  They seemed to be simple nomads who had no vision beyond their immediate surroundings, past ‘the dust of their feet.’


“Avraham therefore asked them to lie down under the tree.  It’s as if he was telling them, ‘Lift your eyes.  Consider the organic process of growth, the mystery of life and focus beyond the treetop to the Heavens, to the stars, to the galaxies, to the nebulae, toward the vast expanse of space…  Please, ‘wash your feet,’ gain a different conception of your environment.  Avraham planted the eishel tree, and from under that tree, he was able, as the verse says, to proclaim the Name of Hashem, the G-d not merely of the tree alone, not merely of man’s immediate surroundings, but of the vast universe.  


“Man’s purpose in general and the Jew’s purpose in particular is to see the G-d of the universe through the leaves of the eishel” (Machzor Masores HaRav, Rosh Hashanah, p.416-417).  


It is easy to see the hand of G-d in the supernatural.  When the Nile turns to blood and the Israelites have fresh water to drink; when the sea miraculously splits; when manna falls from heaven and water flows from a rock; when a tiny country wins a war in just Six Days, against millions of enemies strong; when we can daven at the Kosel once again after almost 2,000 years of wandering… When G-d reveals Himself in the miracles of life, it is easy to sing shiraזֶ֤ה קלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ - this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him (Shemos 15:2), and Rashi (ibid) explains, keviyachol, that the people beheld a vision of the Glory of G-d.  When we see Yad Hashem, it is easy to feel His presence in our lives.  


But Avraham planted a tree, and from that tree, he called in the name of G-d.  It is not sufficient to find Hashem in the miracles of life, we must recognize His Hand in the natural world all around us.  


Miriam Peretz lost two sons in the IDF.  Her eldest son, Uriel z’l HYD - 1976-1998 - was killed in the north, in battle with Hezbollah, and her second son, Eliraz z’l HY”D - 1978-2010 - was killed in Gaza, in battle with Hamas.  Eliraz left behind his widow, Shlomit, and their four young children.


Their mother, Miriam writes, “Eliraz also worked in agriculture, because he loved the land.  At Uriel’s funeral, his younger siblings picked up clods of earth that covered the grave and hurled them to the ground.  This was painful for Eliraz to watch.  After the shivah week was over, the first thing he did was to take his brothers and sisters to the wadi behind our home, where they planed trees.  He told them, ‘The land that took our brother, Uriel, is good, fertile land.’


“Every time I look at the wadi and see how those trees have grown, I know how old they are.  They are as old as the years that Uriel has been gone.  


“When Shlomit finished sitting shiva for Eliraz, and returned to her home in Eli, the first thing she did with her little children was to plant trees in the yard.  She also told her children that this land is precious, beloved and fertile” (Miriam’s Song, p.185).


May we merit to recognize that every happening - from the large to the small, from the inspiring to the mundane, from the miraculous to the natural - emanates from the will of the RS”O.  That even something as simple as a tree is a testament to G-d in our everyday lives.   


בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום

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