Thursday, 29 Jun 2023

Written by Matt Turchin

Our Tree of Death

There is a tree of death growing in our backyard. It has been there for so long that most days we don’t even notice it. We have offset it with flowers and pleasant shrubbery, masking it from sight, and over time we have made great efforts to shift the focus of our attention on the beautiful tree of life which stands gloriously in the front yard, perfectly maintained for all to see. We delight in the comings and goings of birds as they take advantage of the life which dominates the entryway to our home. Yet behind our house grows this other tree. It is thick and heavy-limbed, securely rooted in the soil, feeding on the septic waters which bubble up from those hidden places of which we dare not speak. It carries stout branches and wears a dense robe of sickly-brown leaves, masking its stodginess. In our wisdom, we have built a little fence around it and carpeted the area with flowers, so that most often we don’t even notice it anymore. But there are days when the wind blows harshly in the dropping pressure of a rising storm, and the branches start to sway, the misshapen leaves fall with false delicacy and the trunk begins to creak. We tell our children not to look, to close their eyes, to peer out front at the graceful swaying tree of life. The hideous tree in the back groans louder, we sense something sinister peering out from those impenetrable shadows, but we prefer not to look, not to see.

Passing by quietly on a particularly sunny day, a neighbour gazes lovingly at our tree of life, remarking to his young daughter how he too would love to have the space to cultivate one so beautiful as this. A passing car slows down, and the glaring driver tells this neighbour and his child to go back where they came from, back to whatever place his ancestors called home. Although neither can see, the horrid tree in our backyard pushes forth another thick sprout into the sunlight, fed by the toxic hatred of one human for another. We turn our heads, tutt softly, and carry on. Another day we closed our ears to the news that a woman’s tree of life, which she had cultivated and used to shelter others, was brutally torn down. She is gone now, and we didn’t want to hear it, so we said nothing. Our secret pernicious tree has pushed out another thick branch, bent and twisted towards the sky, a defiant fist brandished against the heavens. It now threatens to peer out over our roof, to be seen beyond our house. Perhaps by paying it no mind, it will cease to be a nuisance. Perhaps no one will see.

You may recall that several neighbours suffered a few years back, as their tree of life was suffocated, brought down by one man’s hatred. Though damaged and scarred, their tree of life survived, but they are gone, and we were left gasping – we did not realise until that moment just how much oxygen this tree of life had provided through their care. Without them to tend that tree, we cannot breathe. And it becomes more apparent just how difficult it has been to breathe for so long. We have been holding our breath, focusing on our beautiful tree, the pride of our front yard, which lovingly serves us and paints our corner of the neighbourhood for all to see. Whenever another life is snuffed out, the dread comes creeping up – can they see the tree of death growing in the back? Can they see how so many others still have air while it is now us who are choking, sputtering, wheezing, struggling for air as our trees of life are beaten, cut, neglected, strangled, shot down and destroyed?

We need to make a decision: do we break down the fence and display our tree of death, or do we continue to hide it? We cannot bear to face it, but that does not stop it from growing, rising up behind us, reaching its roots beneath us. If we display our tree of death, if we face it head-on, perhaps we can make little changes, we can prune it back and limit its growth. We can expose the limbs and show that yes, we notice our tree – it exists. But an exposed branch is just the perfect place to hang a rope. So we believe we have taken some drastic measures, nothing too extreme, but some visible show of solidarity. Yet still another neighbour dies trying to protect their tree of life, to protest that it too, should be given space to grow, and we are forced to face facts. We say we will finally cut our tree of death. So we hire someone to take it down to a stump. We ignore the fact that a stump is the perfect height for a chopping block. We ignore the new sprouts poking through around the edges of the stump, fed by the recent blood of the accused. Even if we grind this stump to the ground, we have not eradicated our tree of death. It is too hardy, too strong, too deeply rooted. It is a long and exhausting process to dig out the expansive ancient roots of this old tree. It has become the very foundation of our house. We are terrified when we realize that our house will need to be uprooted, possibly even destroyed before the roots can all be located. Just think how we will feel when we come to the realization that those roots, stubborn and strong, have grown all the way to the front yard while we refused to pay attention, and are now firmly wrapped around the roots of our tree of life. What will it take to make us look? What are we willing to lose?

Mah tovu ohalecha, Ya’akov, mishkenotechah, Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Num. 23:5) Eternal God, Your Tree of Life was a sanctuary, until evil brought its curse through your doors, claiming eleven victims for the tree of death. Yet can the death of death ever restore life? The roots are already around our necks, how can we breathe? The air will not be clean again until this tree of death is given no quarter, no place to flourish. It is the sewage, the bile deep within our soil which feeds this tree – there is much cleaning to do. The task seems endless, but a tree of death does not spring up overnight. It seeds itself and rises patiently before springing like a viper. It grows in bursts, sudden spurts which, like gunshots, ring out brazenly in the brightest morning hours. Does the sanctuary provided by our homes and dwelling places depend on the grinding down of one tree of death? Or, perhaps the change we seek can be effected through a more sacred effort of all humanity working together, imagining and facilitating a world in which those ghastly trees are revealed, acknowledged and over time, thinned out and subdued. Then the curse of Balaam will be transformed into a blessing, and our Trees of Life will flourish, “like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Eternal One, like cedars beside the water; their boughs dripping with moisture, their roots fed by abundant water.” (Num. 23:6-7) There is always another way, when we choose life.

May all those lost in the holy act of tending the Tree of Life be remembered for a blessing.

 Ken yehi ratzon.


Matt Turchin LBC rabbinic student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.