Spiritual lessons from trees, for Tu B’Shvat.
It was 110 degrees the morning we climbed the steep cliff near the Dead Sea. My husband and I thought we had enough water. But the air was so heavy with heat, I felt it push down upon my shoulders. Soon I was at the bottom of my water pack. Dizzy and exhausted, we could not risk sitting down on the exposed, simmering sand. And then I saw what looked like a mirage – a small, scraggly tree poking out of the edge of the mountain.
We scrambled up to it and touched it to make sure it was real. There was just enough shade for the two of us to sit beneath it and catch our breath. As we sat under the low, crackling branches, I wondered how this tree could grow here. How did it survive the blazing sun and the desert winds? Where did it get its water from?
I thought about that lonely desert tree as Tu B’Shvat, the new year for the trees, draws near. I wondered what I could learn from that tree and discovered four insights from four amazing trees.
1. The Giant Sequoia. The Giant Sequoia is a redwood tree located in Sequoia National Park in California and is 2,700 years old. It is 275 feet tall and measures more than a hundred feet around its base. When we look at this tree’s majestic height, we can access our own innate desire for spiritual greatness. This tree teaches us to reach higher than we did yesterday.
2. The Quaking Aspen: Pando. This tree is also called the Trembling Giant, and it is a huge colony of a single, quaking aspen tree spread out over more than 100 acres in Utah. Every tree in the area emerges from a single organism, and they all share a giant underground root system. Pando, as a group, weighs 6,615 tons making it the heaviest organism on earth.
Like the Quaking Aspen, mankind stems from One Source and root system. We can learn to see each other through this lens of unity by studying the Pando. We are all from a single, divine spark and deep beneath the surface of humanity, we depend on a collective root system to survive.
3. The Pirangi Cashew Tree. This tree, near Natal, Brazil, is a 177 year old cashew tree that covers almost two acres of land. When this tree’s branches touch the ground, it automatically puts down roots and keeps growing, unlike any other cashew tree. From this tree we learn that there are hundreds of ways to grow, and that we have the potential to reach outwards, laying down roots wherever we go.
4. The Tree of Life. The Tree of Life in the Bahrain desert is located hundreds of miles from any other tree and survives its harsh environment by spreading its roots down hundreds of feet to aquifers. It is believed to be over 400 years old, and it is one of the loneliest trees in the world. From this tree we learn that we can survive difficult conditions and loneliness as long as we are connected to the life giving waters of the Torah that we can access even in the barest of deserts.
The Tree of Life exhibits another trait, in common with our scraggly, tiny tree on the edge of the Dead Sea cliff – being antifragile. Antifragile is an expression coined by bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Most of us would say that the opposite of fragile is something that is strong or unbreakable. However, that is just the absence of fragility. The true opposite of fragile is antifragile – something that thrives because of stress.
The lonely tree in the desert grew strong and survived because it was forced to develop a deep enough root system to reach the water hundreds of feet below the ground. The seeds of all trees are inherently antifragile; they grow only by breaking apart their outer shells.
We can make the mistake of believing that we are fragile beings since our bodies are so vulnerable. But even our physical bodies only grow when they are stressed to a certain limit. Short high intensity workouts accomplish more than longer, moderate workouts. Our muscles need to be pushed to their limit to really grow.
The same is true in developing our spiritual muscles. Our souls want to reach the heights of the Giant Sequoia, yearning to grow like the Pirangi Cashew Tree, but they need to be challenged and stretched. They are antifragile; they grow stronger when pushed to break through their shell and go outside their comfort zone.
In the winter when the trees are bereft of their leaves and the ground is still frozen, we celebrate the new year for the trees. Don’t focus on the fragile, swaying branches above the ground. Instead think about the real, antifragile growth taking place under the surface. This is the growth that parallels our own ability to break through obstacles in our lives as we become stronger, challenge by challenge.