BY RABBI EMMA GOTTLIEB 1/25/2018
Science can now confirm that hugging trees is good for you.
If the idea of hugging a tree makes you a little uncomfortable, rest easy. You don’t have to hug them to derive benefits. Just being in their vicinity can positively affect your health.
In a recently published book called Blinded by Science, author Matthew Silverstone explains that the vibrational properties of trees can improve many health issues, including concentration, reaction times, depression, stress, and other forms of mental illness – even headaches!
Although the term “vibrational properties” sounds complex, it’s actually quite simple: Everything vibrates, and different vibrations can affect our biology. Thus, when you touch a tree, or spend time in close proximity to one, the tree’s rate of vibration – which differs from your own – can affect you in positive ways.
It’s pretty fascinating. What’s even more fascinating, though, is that science is only recently understanding what religions have known for thousands of years.
In Jewish tradition, a tree is one of the most potent symbols we have. Trees symbolize a bridge between heaven and earth, as well as Torah, human beings, and God’s Divine structure.
But it is now clear that trees are more than just symbols of power. Trees have power – transformative power.
Even the first humans sensed this. Adam and Eve were drawn to the Tree of Knowledge long before anyone could scientifically explain why.
“Once upon a time,” writes Rabbi Daniel Swartz in an article about Judaism and nature, “we knew less about the natural world than we do today. [Yet] we understood that world better [for] we lived ever so much closer to its rhythms.” Rabbi Swarz reminds us that the Bible is a story about people with intimate knowledge of the land, knowledge that is reflected in the language and poetry of our prophets, psalmists, and wisdom literature.
When Isaiah compared 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. To our modern ears, though, the metaphor is lost. Most of us aren’t intimately familiar with the characteristics of the terebinth. We live among trees, if we’re lucky, but how many of us really take the time to learn about them? And how many of us stop to notice whether or not we feel differently around them?
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in the 18th century, knew that he felt differently when surrounded by trees. He wrote this now-famous prayer:
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees (and) enter into prayer…may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants …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 things…
Rabbi Nachman knew the transformative power of trees. They transformed him and his ability to pray and connect with God. They transformed the prayers themselves.
We know now that Rabbi Nachman, a great teacher, scholar, and spiritual seeker, struggled with mental illness throughout his life. He experienced 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 alleviated by spending a little more time around trees?
Rabbi Swartz writes, “We have set ourselves apart from the world of the seasons, the world of floods and rainbows and new moons…”
But our Torah, our very own Tree of Life, urges us to engage with nature, to care for trees and to learn from them. In a war, we can destroy just about everything except for 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, too, once?
Rabbi Swarz questions 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.
May each of us, at this Tu BiSh’vat – the New Year 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.
Rabbi Emma Gottlieb is the director of education and family programming at Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism in Toronto, Canada.