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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Beshalach 5772 "The Inverted Tree"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Shalom Schwadron zt’l, the Maggid of Yerushalayim, related the story about Moshe, a young ba’al teshuvah attending a yeshiva in B’nei Brak, who was about to make a siyum on a masechta[1] for the first time. Although Moshe’s parents were completely secular, he had made the spiritual journey towards a Torah life. As he sat surrounded by his Rabbeim and friends a feeling of joy permeated the air.

The only exception was Moshe’s father, who sat dolefully watching the events with apparent chagrin. Truthfully that was the last place he wanted to be. He had only come because Moshe had begged him profusely.

Each Rebbe spoke of the great strides Moshe had made since he had joined the Yeshiva. When Moshe himself spoke, copious tears flowed down his face as he expressed his gratitude to his friends, Rabbeim and most importantly to G-d. As he spoke, Moshe stole a quick glance at his father who seemed perturbed.

Just before it was time to bentch, Moshe’s father stood up and asked if he could say a few words. The crowd looked at the man donned in shorts and a cap with respectful but curious silence:

“I have been watching this event for the past two hours and I did not think I would enjoy it at all. In fact I was hesitant to come at all. But now that I came, I am happy I did. I’ll explain why by sharing a story with you:

“I come from Russia. Although I was completely assimilated Jew, the Russian authorities hated me all the same. To them, a Jew is a Jew. They accused me of disloyalty to Communism and they deported me to a slave labor camp in Siberia. For a year I worked alongside another inmate. He was as afraid to talk to me as I was afraid to talk to him, and for the entire year we never uttered one word to each other. We froze together, worked together, and starved together, but we never spoke.

“At the end of the year, I was granted my release. I felt that I should at least say goodbye to my silent companion. When I did, he told me that he wanted to tell me a story. I never understood the story - perhaps he was afraid to explain it. But tonight I think I finally comprehend its message.

“There once was a beautiful apple orchard. The trees in the orchard grew beautifully and the apples were as delicious as they were lustrous. Each year the crop that grew was even tastier and more beautiful than the previous year.

“One summer day, one of the gardeners mentioned to another that he had a novel idea. “The roots of the trees are filthy and unsightly and yet they produce such beautiful apples. If we would uproot one of the trees and turn it over so that the beautiful part of the tree was in the ground, imagine how much more magnificent the orchard would look.” The second gardener agreed and they uprooted a few trees and turned them upside down.

Soon the roots were skyward, while the beautiful leaves and branches were embedded in the ground. To their chagrin, nothing grew. Convinced of the veracity of their logic, they tried again with a few more trees. When that failed, they tried with even more trees, until the entire orchard looked horrible. Worse yet, no apples grew. Within a short time there was nothing left of the magnificent orchard that had been there, aside for one solitary apple that remained from the previous crop. Somehow, the seed from that apple was planted. The next year a sapling grew, and from that sapling the orchard began to grow anew.

“That was the end of the story and I never saw the man again. He remained behind and I left to freedom.

“I never knew what he meant by that story, but tonight I think I finally understand. My generation had great ideas. We were going to overturn all of the ideals of our predecessors. We had new modern ideas that would guide the lives of man and the course of civilization. We contemplated “isms” that would create new governments and produce a better future. But it all failed abysmally. Every one of those new ideas produced disastrous and calamitous results. Yet one apple remained and that one apple contains the seed from which will emanate the hope of the future.”

The crowd sat spellbound as they listened to Moshe’s father’s words. He paused as he tried not to lose his composure. He looked at his son and with a quivering voice choked with emotion he said, “My son, you are the future! I am proud of you.” With that, he embraced his son and wept.

In Parshas Shoftim (Devorim 20:19) the Torah states, “כי האדם עץ השדה - For man is like the trees in the field.” Maharal[2] explains that although man is in many ways analogous to a tree, he is actually ‘an upside down’ tree. While the main structure of a tree stands majestically above the ground, the roots of the tree are planted firmly in the ground. Through the process of osmosis, the tree sustains itself with the nourishment that emanates from the ground and travels through its roots. Man is just the opposite. While man lives on earth and nourishes his physical body from the physical earth, his real inner being is his soul, which is rooted in the heavens.

The Gemara[3] relates that Rav Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi fell ill and was at the brink of death before he was healed. When Rav Yosef regained consciousness his father asked him what he had seen in the upper worlds while he had been comatose. Rav Yosef replied, “I saw an upside-down world. Those who were on top here are on the bottom there; and those who are regarded as lowly here, are exalted in heaven.” Upon hearing his son’s remarks, Rabbi Yehoshua replied, “My son, you have seen the true world.”

Perhaps this too is a reference to the idea of the Maharal that the tree’s vibrancy is rooted in the earth while man’s vibrancy is rooted in the heavens. A spiritually connected man is upside down from what grows in this world.

Rabbi Yosef Leib Nenedik zt’l hy’d[4] explains that there are two forces that dominate a person’s psyche - his heart and his mind. These forces are analogous to a government comprised of two different branches, with all political decisions requiring the input and consent of both branches. Both branches will constantly be vying for control and influence. On occasion, one branch will convince the other that its opinion is correct and a ruling will be made, or vice-versa. Very often however, the two branches are at odds and remain at different ends of the political spectrum. In such instances, until the standoff is somehow resolved, no government decisions can be rendered and everything remains status quo.

In a similar vein, within the psyche of man, a person’s logic and reasoning are constantly struggling with his emotions for control over his actions. If one’s conviction is that he must ‘follow his heart’ his emotions will dictate his actions, whereas if common sense is more compelling, logic will dictate his actions. If a person is indecisive he will end up doing nothing.

As the ten plagues were occurring, Pharaoh had this inner recurring struggle. Logic and reasoning argued that he should allow the Jews to leave, but emotionally he remained obstinate and inflexible. His emotional stubbornness was the catalyst of the cycle of empty threats and neglected promises, until the final plague when Pharaoh’s will was broken and he implored them to leave.

At that point, Pharaoh was thoroughly convinced of G-d’s Might and Omnipotence. Still-in-all, in his heart he wanted to pursue and destroy them. He restrained himself only because he knew that the pursuit would bear painful consequences for him and his army. Therefore, Pharaoh ended up doing nothing. But when Pharaoh was informed that the Jews seemed to be wandering aimlessly in the desert and were traveling backwards, he was convinced of their vulnerability. At that point, emotion overwhelmed logic and he geared up for the pursuit which ultimately landed the Egyptians at the bottom of the sea.

Rabbi Nenedik explains that this is an important lesson. One must always strive to ensure that his actions are guided by logic and straightforward thinking, that he is not overcome by emotions which blind him and lead him down a slippery slope.

He explains that this is a fundamental difference between the righteous and the wicked. In reference to the wicked Haman the verse[5] states, “Vayomer Haman b’libo- Haman said within his heart.” In regard to the righteous Chanah however, the verse states, “v’Chanha hee midaberes el libah- And Chanah spoke to her heart.” Although Chanah’s emotions played a significant role in her actions, they did not dictate her behavior. Rather, she “spoke to her heart”, i.e. she did not lose herself to the tempest of emotions. Haman on the other hand, was completely dominated by his heart and therefore he was not vigilant enough with his words and decisions.

Popular culture and society seems to be lost in the pursuit of irrational emotional bliss. The popular creed is that one should always ‘follow his heart’. The relentless pursuit of hedonism, glamour, fame, and “love” has so inundated our culture that religion, family, and values play second-fiddle to them. In fact, our culture’s definition of love has little - if no - connection with the true meaning of love. Many of our culture’s heroes and role models are crass, uneducated, and undignified people who live immoral valueless lives. They are immortalized because they have the ability to entertain us and our culture will play any price for entertainment. Ours is truly an inverted world.

The truth is that emotions play a vital and potentially positive role in one’s behavior. One is only passionate and emotional about things which are precious and dear to him. Is there any Jewish parent who does not want to inculcate within their child a passionate and emotional connection to Torah, Shabbos, and G-d?!

Still-in-all, before one develops an emotional connection with something he must be sure that it is something worth being emotional about. We understand the value and the importance of Torah and Judaism and therefore we know logically that it is something we want to be emotional about. Tragically, our culture is passionate about many things that are transient and futile. Man is an upside-down tree in the sense that although he lives in this world, his nurturance comes from the world of truth above.

Chamisha Asar B’Shvat[6] is an esoteric and mystical holiday, whose true depth is shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, the day contains special meaning for Klal Yisroel and is considered a minor holiday.

Many commentators point to the aforementioned pasuk, “Ki ha’adam aitz hasadeh” in explaining our connection to Chamisha Asar B’shvat, the “New Year” for trees. However, the Maharal points out that the analogy of man and trees is not perfect for they are nurtured from opposite extremes. It would seem that the reason our society lacks moral and ethical values, is because they do not pay heed to this fundamental idea of the Maharal. They indeed view man as being exactly the same as a tree who seeks to ‘nourish’ himself from all that the physical earth has to offer.

Pharaoh destroyed his monarchy and his people because he allowed his heart to dominate him. The commentators question how G-d could harden Pharaoh’s heart after each plague. Doesn’t every person have free choice? Perhaps Pharaoh’s free choice was not really taken away at all. The Torah never says that Pharaoh was forced into any decisions, only that G-d hardened his heart. It was Pharaoh’s own deficiency that he allowed his heart to control him and dictate his decisions which caused his downfall.

Chamisha Asar B’shvat is always in close proximity to the reading of Parshas Beshalach, the Shabbos known as Shabbos Shira- the Shabbos of Song[7]. It is only when one truly feels deep emotional bliss that he can elevate himself to sing. Klal Yisroel had witnessed the revelation of G-d’s Might and they KNEW that His Word was true. Once they ‘recognized G-d’, they were able to develop an emotional connection with Him which elevated them to sing a song of blissful joy.

“For man is like…. An upside down tree”

“My son, you have seen the real world.”

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[1] completing a tractate of Talmud

[2] Netzach Yisroel chapter 7

[3] Pesachim 50a

[4] Mashgiach of the Yeshiva of Kletzk

[5] Esther 6:6

[6] the fifteenth day of Shevat (Tu B’shvat)

[7] referring to the song that Klal Yisroel sang on the banks of the Sea of Reeds

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