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JCF Blog

What's so Jewish about a Sequoia Tree?

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 9/17/2015
There are a few books I go back to again and again in preparation for the high holidays.  Most, as you might expect, are designed to make the reader consider the power of the Days of Awe and to set the stage for personal introspection.  This year, I reread a short vignette on Sequoia trees that was more meaningful for me than in past years.

The first, question you might ask is what is so Jewish about Sequoia trees?  The answer might surprise you.

If you have never been to the Sequoia or Giant Redwood forests of California, let me tell you something about them.  The oldest of these trees can exceed 2,000 years and topping out at 350 feet tall they are nearly as tall as skyscrapers.  They are the largest species of plant on earth and are magnificent to behold.  If you stand among the trees, you cannot but help but be reminded of how small we humans are in the context of the greater universe (Radical Amazement as Abraham Joshua Heschel might have said).

Yet, what most people don’t know is that Sequoia trees have very shallow roots.  A Sequoia’s roots “are so shallow that it can hardly stand up to a strong breeze” says Rabbi Dannel Schwartz.  So how is it that this extraordinary species is able to grow so large and live so long?  The answer is simple – the trees spring up in groves and their roots intertwine.  Or as Rabbi Schwartz says “they hold each other up – they give each other the strength necessary to withstand the angriest winds.”

Doesn’t that exactly parallel the story of the Jewish people?  We have held each other up for thousands of years against even the angriest winds.  
Victor Frankl knew those angry winds.  The author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” was a survivor of the death camps and a psychiatrist.  In his remarkable book, he recounts his experiences during the holocaust and proposes a theory of mental and emotional health based on these experiences.   At its heart, Frankl believed that man's ultimate emotional health and happiness were based on the need to find meaning in life.

His thinking resonates with me. I have always believed that the power of human will was virtually unlimited and that happiness followed both optimism and meaning in life.  As Frankl himself said "the more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself."

As the high holidays approach, and we all consider what the meaning of our own lives are, let us remember that part of that meaning comes in the design of the Redwood forests.  As a people and as a community, we only thrive because we are there to hold each other up.  Without that support, we are doomed to fall to the slightest of breeze.

Shana Tova.  May our community have a good and sweet New Year.

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