For Man is like the Tree of the Field
הרב מרדכי גרינברג
"For Man is like the Tree of the Field." (Devarim 20:19) Beyond the simple meaning of this pasuk, which deals with the prohibition against wanton destruction, there is a deeper meaning to the simile of a tree. Man has the quality of a tree.
Man (adam) is named based on his source from the earth. The obvious question is: All living creatures were created from the earth -- "Let the earth bring forth living creatures." (Bereishit 1:24) Why was man, specifically, named after the earth?
The Maharal explains in a number of places that man is not named after the earth because of his source from the earth, for if so animals are more physical and closer to the earth. Rather, he is called so because he has the quality of the earth.
The earth has the ability to actualize all of the potential that is inherent within it. Moreover, when a seed is planted in it, the earth actualizes all of the potential inherent the seed. In the same way, the soul is planted in man, and he must uncover it and actualize it. A person who disregards his soul and does not actualize its potential is like a tree that does not bear fruit, and his whole creation is for naught. Therefore a person who does not learn Torah is called a "boor," like earth that is not worked. Not so an animal (behema), that does not have hidden powers, and is created in its full form. "A one day old ram is called a ram." Therefore only man is named after the earth, whereas animals are called behema, indicating "bah mah," whatever is in it -- is in it, and no more.
In this way man is similar to a tree, that he must produce his fruits, which are the mitzvot and good deeds, as it says, "Tell [each] righteous person that it is good; for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds" (Yeshaya 3:10); "He shall be like a tree ... that yields its fruit in its season." (Tehillim 1:3) Similarly, in the end of our parsha, in the section of the egla arufah (axed heifer), Rashi comments, "Let a calf in its first year, that did not produce fruit, come and be axed ... to atone for the murder of this [person] who was not allowed to produce fruit." (Rashi Devarim 21:4) The conclusion of the Gemara in Sotah (46a) is that this means that he was not allowed to be involved in Torah and mitzvot.
However, there are two differences between man and a tree:
A tree produces fruit naturally, whereas a person produces them through his own free will.
A tree's roots are below, and it draws its sustenance from the physical earth, whereas man is an "upside-down" tree, and his roots are above, from under the Divine Throne.
Since repentance means retuning to the source, to Hashem, it is something infinite, and therefore man's responsibility to actualize himself is never ending. Therefore the Maharal and Rav Kook zt"l write that there is no concept of perfection for man, but only for G-d. Man's completion is through seeking perfection, moving towards perfection, aspiring and desiring to achieve perfection. Therefore, Teshuva is not only for the wicked but also for the righteous, since repentance is not only from bad to good, but also from a lower level to a higher one, from something small to something great.
Furthermore, just as with a tree, even if in the winter season is seems that it has lost its strength, one should not despair, since in the time of spring it will blossom once again.
Therefore we read in the beginning of Elul, "For man is like the tree of the field," to indicate the obligation for completion and self-actualization towards the new year.
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