It’s no secret.
Anyone who’s ever read Shel Silverstein can tell you.
They give us shade and fruit and wood and oxygen.
They give us lovely places to rest.
They give us shelter. They give us life.
I recently learned about the phenomenon of tree-hugging.
It turns out that hugging trees is good for you.
And if the idea of hugging a tree makes you a little uncomfortable, rest easy – because you don’t have to hug them to derive benefits.
You don’t even have to touch a tree!
Just being in its vicinity can positively effect your health.
In a recently published book called Blinded by Science, author Matthew Silverstone explains scientifically that the vibrational properties of trees can improve many brain-related health issues, such as concentration levels, reaction times, depression, stress, and other forms of mental illness. Trees may even be able to alleviate headaches!
A major public health report has affirmed the association between green spaces and mental health, concluding that, “access to nature can significantly contribute to our mental capital and wellbeing.”
Studies also show that children who interact with plants and trees demonstrate significant psychological and physiological improvements in their health and well-being. Specifically, they function better cognitively and emotionally.
Although the term “vibrational properties” sounds complex, it’s actually quite simple: everything vibrates, and different vibrations can affect biology. Thus, when you touch a tree, or spend time in close proximity to one, it’s rate of vibration, which differs from your own, can affect you in positive ways.
It’s pretty fascinating. But what’s even more fascinating is that what science is just now proving, religions have known for thousands of years.
In Jewish tradition, a tree is one of the most potent symbols. Trees symbolize a bridge between heaven and earth and they also symbolize Torah, as well as human beings and God’s Divine structure.
According to Midrash, trees are sentient, meaning they have awareness and can perceive or sense what is happening around them.
That may seem pretty “unscientific”, but then again, the trees in the Garden of Eden were said to have had healing powers, and as we just heard, science has proven that to be plausible.
Whether or not we go so far as Midrash in our thinking about trees, it is clear that trees are more than just symbols of power.
Trees have power.
Trees have transformative power.
They make us feel better!
Even the first humans sensed this.
Adam and Eve were drawn to the Tree of Knowledge – drawn to it’s transformative power – long before humanity had the ability to explain why scientifically.
“Once upon a time,” Rabbi Daniel Swarz writes in an article about Judaism and nature, “we knew less about the natural world than we do today. Much less. But we understood that world better, much better, for we lived ever so much closer to its rhythms.”
Rabbi Swarz reminds his readers that the Bible is a story about, “people who cared about and knew intimately the land around them.
That knowledge,” he writes, “is richly, even lavishly, reflected in the language of the prophets and psalmists, in the poetry of the Song of Songs and Job.”
For example, when Isaiah compares Israel to a terebinth oak in the fall, his audience could immediately appreciate the double-edged nature of his metaphor, for while the terebinth is at its most glorious just before all its leaves drop away, it is also one of the hardiest of trees and can even re-sprout from a stump.
But to our modern ears, distanced as we are from the natural world, the metaphor is lost. Most of us aren’t intimately familiar
with the characteristics of the terebith oak, or of any other tree for that mater. We live among trees, if we’re lucky, but how many of us take the time to really learn about them? And how many of us stop to notice whether or not we feel differently around them?
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in 18th century Eastern Europe, knew that he felt differently when surrounded by trees and nature.
He wrote this now famous prayer:
Grant me the ability to be alone;
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awaken at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing thing, which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my hands to You in worship…
Rabbi Nachman knew the transformative power of the trees.
They transformed him,
they transformed his ability to pray and connect with God,
and they transformed the prayers themselves.
“May all the foliage of the field…send the powers of their life into my words of prayer.”
Knowing what science has now confirmed, about the benefits of trees to our mental health, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Rabbi Nachman, a great teacher, scholar, and spiritual seeker, struggled with mental illness throughout his life. At an early age he was marked by an exaggerated sense of sin and morbidity, and he was subject to rapid mood swings and bouts of paranoia.
But under the trees, it seems, he felt better.
How many of our daily aches and pains,
how many of our daily sorrows and woes,
how much of our unhappiness,
could be cured by spending a little more time around trees.
Rabbi Swartz writes: “Most have us have wandered far from our earlier understanding, (and) our long-ago intimacy (with nature). We take for granted what our ancestors could not, dared not, take for granted; we have set ourselves apart from the world of the seasons, the world of floods and rainbows and new moons…”
Our Torah, our very own Tree of Life, urges us to care for trees, to learn from them and to tend to them. In a war, we can destroy just about everything BUT fruit trees, and even if the Messiah himself arrives, should we be in the middle of planting a tree, we must finish planting before going to greet him. That’s how important trees are.
Adam and Eve knew it.
Our psalmists and sages knew it.
Rabbi Nachman most certainly knew it.
Children know it.
Maybe you knew it, once.
Rabbi Swarz questions whether, “our modern sophistication can be married to the ancient intimacy (he describes); whether we can move from our discord with nature to an informed harmony with this, God’s universe.”
If we can, it begins with hugging trees.
Yesterday was Tu B’Shvat: The New Year or Birthday of the Trees.
“Jewish Arbor Day”, if you will.
I celebrated it by going out and hugging a tree, and I’m not gonna lie, it felt pretty good!
If you haven’t hugged a tree lately (or ever) then I suggest you find one and give it a try.
If someone sees you, you can tell them your Rabbi told you to do it.
May each of us, on this Shabbat,
the Shabbat of the Trees,
refuse to be complacent in accepting the ills and sorrows of our lives;
May we seek out ancient and modern cures alike;
And may we begin with the trees.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.