The Nature of the Cosmos

Why should we care so much about the details of the Tabernacle?

Print this page Print this page

Trees & Jews

Trees, as well as light, are associated with consciousness for Jews. Our moral consciousness comes from having eaten the fruit of a tree (Genesis 3). The Torah is "a tree of life to all who hold fast to her" (Proverbs 3:18). Trees are elders of the living earth. Their rootedness, endurance, and capacity for renewal is a blessing extended to the righteous: "The righteous shall flourish like the date palm" (Psalm 92:13). The righteous too shall be trees of life.
trees and jews
But the Menorah is yet a different sort of tree, because its branches are crowned with bowls filled with oil that are lit regularly by the priests. Who ever heard of a tree perpetually on fire?

He gazed and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.... God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" He answered, "Here I am." And [God] said, "Do not come closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!" (3:2-5).

In his book Sinai and Zion (1985), Jon Levenson describes how the religion of Sinai was transformed into the religion of Zion. In the Tanach's account of the settlement of the Land of Israel, Sinai-the wilderness mountain of the s'neh (thornbush), the site of Israel's revelation and covenant-was refashioned as Zion, the holy mountain of the Jerusalem temple. The Burning Bush itself was reproduced as a golden tree lit by priests. Levenson speculates that the emblem of the deity of Sinai was some sort of tree. He points out that the blessing in Deuteronomy 33:16 identifies God as shochni s'neh, "the Presence in the Bush."

The feminist theologian Nelle Morton describes metaphor as an explosive process with a trajectory, like a meteor (The Journey is Home, 1985).The tree on fire that is not consumed-this is an image on an immense journey. The metaphor has traveled from Sinai to Zion, to Exile and beyond, and we have not even begun to exhaust its resonances.

A tree on fire embraces what we misperceive as antitheses: earth and heaven, matter and energy. What we are accustomed to polarize is revealed to us in blazing union. A tree on fire unconsumed proclaims that what is material, temporal, perishable, can sustain what the Christian theologian Rudolf Otto calls the "fearsome and fascinating mystery" of the presence of God (The Idea of the Holy, 1923). If we were only able to see, the whole earth would appear to us like a tree on fire, and we would see a tree on fire in every human frame.

We cannot relive the moment when a startled shepherd sees a terrible and wonderful sight: a tree on fire, unconsumed. We can only make a memory tree to remind us of that moment, an artifice that we ourselves ceremoniously set afire amidst song and liturgy. The memory tree is a tree of wonder only and not a tree of terror. We take our chances, stubbornly continuing to set our memory-tree on fire-real fire, with all its potential for enlightenment and danger, reproducing the encounter with that fiery presence we seek and yet fear: the revealer of mysteries, the dweller in the bush.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rachel Adler

Rachel Adler, a feminist theologian, earned a Ph.D. in religion and social ethics from the University of Southern California jointly with Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, where she now teaches.