Rosh HaShanah eve 2015 / 5776: "Growing new rings"

Adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on Erev Rosh HaShanah 2015 / 5776:

I have heard that it sometimes happens that people’s minds wander during High Holiday services.  So I would like to offer you something to think about if this should be true of you.

Should you find your mind wandering, I invite you to take a close look at a piece of wood.  This is easy to do in our sanctuary.  there is wood on the benches, on the bimah behind me, on the hardwood floor below us - everywhere.  And I invite you to pay attention to the natural coloring  and pattern of the piece of wood you are looking at -  what carpenters would call the ‘wood grain.’  The exact patterns that you are looking at are absolutely unique to this piece of wood.  it’s presumed that there is no other piece of wood in the world that has the exact same pattern of lines and curves and gradations of color as the one you are now looking at.

You may have learned in childhood that when one looks at a cross-section of a tree, one can assess how many years that tree has lived by counting the tree rings, the concentric circles around the center.  Every year, a tree adds a new layer of wood right below the bark - usually a light-color ring in the spring, and then a dark-colored ring in the summer.  You probably can’t see the rings in the pieces of wood you are looking at, because they are probably not cross-sections, but you probably can see the lines that represent the layers of wood.  And each dark line represents the conclusion of another summer in the life of the tree.  Each piece of wood tells its story - a story of the life of the tree of which it used to be a part.

You may be looking at a piece of wood with lines very close together - which represents a period of time when there was not much water and therefore not much growth, year after year.  And you may be looking at a piece of wood where the lines are very wide and full -- which could mean that the tree lived through a period of plenty and prosperity, with adequate water and sunshine.  And most likely, you’re looking at a piece of wood that had periods of drought and periods of plenty - just like many human lives.  If you could see our tree rings, they would probably reflect some years in our lives of tremendous growth and development, and some years of our lives that were more difficult, that did not have the right circumstances for optimal growth.

In all cases, the piece of wood that you are looking at probably took many years - 30 or 40 years or more - to be formed.  If you’re looking at a piece of wood in this sanctuary, that probably means that it was a tree that was planted at some point in the 19th century, and the lines that you are looking at continue to tell a story of the rain and the sun from that bygone era.  The tree’s story isn’t hidden. It’s on display for everyone to see.

You may know that trees are a favorite metaphor in Jewish tradition for a human being.  When the prophet Jeremiah wanted to refer to someone who trusts in God, he said  והיה כעץ שתול על מים The righteous person who trusts in God shall be like “a tree planted by the waters.”  When the Psalmist wanted to refer to our dreams for righteous people, he said  צדיק כתמר יפרח, כארז בלבנון ישגה  “The righteous shall flourish like palm trees and thrive like cedars in Lebanon.”

Through the centuries, when Jews have looked at trees, we have seen reflections of ourselves.  And that’s what I invite you to do on the cusp of this new year:   Just as trees complete a new growth ring around Rosh haShanah, at the conclusion of the summer, so imagine that each year, we human beings also add new growth rings.
These growth rings don’t necessarily make us physically larger. (except, of course, when they do.)  But they still represent the growth that has taken place during the past year. There’s no year that goes by without us adding a new outer ring,
as a record of what kind of year we have lived.

Actually, there are other stories about the tree that the wood can tell us. You may be looking at a piece of wood that has a knot in it - or maybe not the knot itself, but a circular pattern of lines, with the otherwise parallel lines appearing to bend around it.  This shows us that way back when, when this piece of wood was part of a tree, there was the point at which a branch was connected - this was the point in space through which nutrients  used to pass through to sustain that branch and its leaves, decades ago.  And that was the point in the lifetime of the tree when the branch began to grow.

And it makes me wonder:  what are the knots on the tree rings of my life?  What are the points in my life when I branched out, when I dedicated a significant portion of my energy and my resources to others? These seem to me to be roughly analogous to the מצוות בין אדם לחברו mitzvot bein adam le-chavero, the commandments between people and people, and גמילות חסדים gemilut hasadim - acts of lovingkindness that we do for others.  I wonder how our lives might be different if we were like trees,and there were an enduring physical record of every time we nourished others and helped them to thrive, by creating pathways to pass on nutrients to them,  and every time we served our communities, as well as every time we had the opportunity to perform such an act of generosity but we refrained.

And there are still more stories that pieces of wood can tell us. Sometimes, if you see some scarring or an especially or uncharacteristically dark line, that can be a sign that this tree, during its lifetime,  survived a forest fire - something that has always been a not uncommon occurrence. And maybe an analysis of my own tree rings would show evidence of the scars of the serious challenges and even traumas in my life that I was able to overcome.

Now If there’s a concept in the natural world that can be harnessed for spiritual wisdom, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory probably wrote about it - and in fact, after this idea occurred to me and I decided to hunt for any essays that have ever been written about spiritual interpretations of tree rings, I was not surprised to discover that one of the few such essays that I was able to find was by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.   

He notes that trees grow from the outside in. The new tree rings grow right under the bark.  Gradually over the lifetime of the tree, it’s like the rings move more deeply within the tree.  And he says, people at every age grow the same way.  ‘Our encounters with the outside world stimulate the new ring of experience on the tree of our lives….. [my] vital growing edge [is] the place where I am vulnerable and alive, where what happens on the outside impinges on me.”  And this means that as we plan for the growth of a new tree ring over the course of the next year, we will want to put ourselves into conditions where our new outer ring will be stimulated to grow.   Because this is one big difference between people and trees. Whether trees have a year of plenty or a year of drought, whether those rings are thick and healthy or narrow and emaciated, has to do entirely with the tree’s circumstances: where it grows, and what kind of atmospheric conditions it lives in. While we are fortunate to make choices - how to live, how to spend our time. How to branch out.  How to dedicate ourselves to others. Who to come in contact with, and what experiences to seek out, that will stimulate our growing edges.
This day also marks the conclusion of a new growth ring for the tree of the Jewish people worldwide.  And I would think that this new ring would show some serious evidence of scarring - from violent incidents against the Jewish communities in Paris, in Copenhagen, in Jerusalem - from some violent incidents perpetrated by members of the Jewish community, sending the entire community into soul-searching; from concern about the Jewish people’s present and future in a precarious world and precarious middle east - concerns about Syria’s present, about Iran’s future; about Israel’s present and future.  But even at difficult moments, we take inspiration with knowing just how resilient this tree is, how many other fires it has been able to withstand, how its multitude of flowers continue to bloom joyfully even at times of challenge.   And for those of us experiencing difficult times in our own lives and looking for inspiration for what resilience looks like, we need to look no further than the Jewish people.

And what happens when we picture the new growth ring for our entire planet? It would probably look much like many of the last several growth rings: it would demonstrate powerful and sustained growth in some regions, and severe, seemingly unbearable challenges in other regions, amid overall concern for the environmental health of the planet and its effect on all future growth rings.

May this new year of 5776 bring blessing to all of us, our families and friends and communities, the house of Israel, and our fractured world.  And may our ‘atzei chayyim’ - our ‘trees of life’  - reflect a life lived with generosity, dedication, purpose, and wisdom, as our new ring grows.

[During my remarks, I also mentioned this inspiring video, in which 101 Israelis - age 0-100 - state their ages in Hebrew.]


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