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Trees are sacred portals

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Getting ready for Tu B’Shevat #2

Last week we looked at the Four New Years and at our New Year for Trees. So often our conversation about trees relates to the things we can consume from them, and does not recognize the fact that they in themselves are actual beings.

If we go back into our tradition we can find many stories relating to trees as special places in themselves, as having identitiy or just being able to react to whatever is happening around them.

One such story is the story of Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh when they were learning the mystical teachings relating to the throne of God. I’m bringing here a short version of theis story from the Talmud, and am suggesting a few questions for some personal learning, relating to the place of trees in this story – a thought for Shabbat:

An incident occurred involving Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, who was riding on a donkey and was traveling along the way, and his student, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, was riding a donkey behind him. Rabbi Elazar said to him: My teacher, teach me one chapter in the Design of the Divine Chariot.....He said to him: Speak. Immediately, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai alighted from the donkey, and wrapped his head in his cloak in a manner of reverence, and sat on a stone under an olive tree.... Immediately, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh began to discuss the Design of the Divine Chariot and expounded, and fire descended from heaven and encircled all the trees in the field, and all the trees began reciting song. (TB Hagiga 14b)

Personal study questions:

1. Why does the conversation begin when they are on their way somewhere?

2. Why do they go and sit beneath a tree when the learning becomes serious/deep? Think of

a practical reason and a symbolic reason.

3. Is the fire encircling the students or the trees? Why?

4. What does the fire bring into our story? Is this a regular fire? Do we know of any other

plant and fire stories from Torah? (Hint – go to Exodus 3:1-6)

5. Why are the trees singing? Can you think what they might be singing about?

6. Have you ever had a personally spiritual or emotional important moment outdoors?

Can you think of a meaningful moment for you which included a walk in the wood, next to

trees or beside a single tree? Are these childhood memories? Something from your adult


7. If you are so inclined, try and paint/draw or recreate in another way this story – did you

learn anything new from this practice?

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