"עֵץ-חַיִּים הִיא, לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ-She is a tree of life for those who cling to her."
One aspect of this common refrain points to the life-giving quality of the Torah,[i] but another aspect refers to the very nature of the Torah.[ii]
The Torah is a unified[iii] and living[iv] organism whose growth is incumbent upon Israel[v] but is guided by Providence.[vi] As the tree develops it becomes ever so specified and differentiated.[vii]
…And through the small leaves one reaches up to the great Roots.[viii]
[i] Ibn Ezra on 3:18; Rashi on Mishlei 3:16; Shabbat 88b
[ii] Yalkut Shemoni here; Brachot 32b; Arachin 15b; Taanit 7a
[iii] The Torah is one interconnected system. This can be said in three ways: a) the content of the Torah is a harmonious unity, b) the Torah is transgenerational, and c) the Torah is holographic.
a) Avakesh expresses it in the following way: "How do we make sense of the myriad isolated phenomena, multiple details and seemingly unrelated particulars that continuously intrude upon our consciousness? Are they representations or fragments of one indivisible whole that we misperceive as distinct or, perhaps, true reflections of the multiplicity in reality. In every discipline and branch of knowledge there are splitters and there are lumpers. The former, to the extent possible, tend to unify and reconcile what they see as different aspects of the One. The latter, driven by the profound conviction, that multiplicity of perceptions reflect multiplicity in existence, on the contrary, divide and sub-classify.“Franz Rosenzweig in the Star of Redemption writes that the former is Judaic, the latter is the inheritance of the nations of the world. On one side stands monotheism, on the other paganism and Christianity.“We, in our own time, have been profoundly influenced by the reductionistic models that have been so successful in scientific and societal endeavors. By breaking all phenomena into finer and finer independent and self-sufficient units, modern man succeeded in harnessing and commanding the very power of Nature. Mechanistic thinking justifies itself and revels in its success. Only recently has the pendulum began to swing back. From molecular biology with its signaling interconnected pathways to discovery of patterns in self organization of physical particles, the order and relatedness of Creation is becoming a subject of scientific inquiry and interest. Still, reductionism is in the very air we breath, it commands us and obscures the worldview of our forefathers. Rabbinic thinking is profoundly synthetic and harmonizing. The Torah is one and does not admit of contradiction and disorder, except perhaps as an intermediate step in an attempts to master it. The Midrashic method is to seek synthesis. It is for this reason that multiple, apparently separate and even contradictory understandings are brought to us as a part of the same whole.
“At the bottom of this tendency is a uniquely Jewish way to see the world. Starting form the same data, it aims to discover unity and unification in Torah interpretation as in life. In that, it has a great deal to teach us."
This is also perhaps the main theme in R. Hirsch’s writings – the Torah is a system with every detail leading to Shleimut. R. Kook (Orot ha’Torah 4:1) poetically writes “The entire Torah is but one name of The Holy One, blessed is He, one name, one expression, one saying…”
b) R. Micha Berger adds that this unity is trans-generational: “Mesorah is a living tradition of a development of ideas. The Oral Torah is oral, a dialog across the generations. If we see a quote in the gemara from Rav Yochanan, we might be curious about the historical intent of Rav Yochanan. But in terms of Torah, important to us than what R’ Yochanan’s original intent is what R’ Ashi thought that intent was, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of what the Rosh and the Rambam understood R’ Ashi’s meaning to be, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of the Shaagas Aryeh and R’ Chaim Brisker. That is the true meaning, in terms of Torah, of Rav Yoachanan’s statement.“Definitionally, talmud Torah is entering the stream. Not seeing a statement as a point to isolate in time and space, but as a being within current that runs through history from creation to redemption."
R. Soloveitchik famously described this trans-generational experience in Shiurei ha’Rav (edited by Joseph Epstein).
c) The Kabbalists take this idea even further. The Gr"a is quoted in Ma'alot ha'Torah (pg.s 15-17) as saying: "When the Gemara mention 613 mitzvos it is referring only to the roots, but these roots spread into many branches. Which commandments are roots and which are branches is not known to us, nor is it necessary to know this, for each mitzvah and word of Torah contains the entire Torah and all the mitzvos; their rules, details and particulars. Thus, the Torah is compared to a tree, as it says, "She is a tree of life for those who cling to her" (Mishlei 3:18). The root of a tree spreads into many branches. Each branch spreads into many stems, and each stem into many fruits. Each fruit has many seeds, each capable of producing an entire tree with roots, branches, stems, leaves, fruits and more seeds to produce another tree, and so on ad infinitum. Also, a branch can be planted to produce a total tree with all its parts, as the philosophers wrote. So it is with words of Torah and mitzvos: every single word and mitzvah contains all the mitzvos and all the words."
R. Moshe Schatz, in "Sparks of the Hidden Light" (pg. 56) relates this idea to Holography. He quotes the Zohar (3:228b) which states that every commandment includes in it all 613. Also see Arizal Mevo Sheraim p. 5b; Etz chaim shaar 24, chapters 1-7, gate 44, chap 7; Rashash, Rechovot ha'Nahar p.3d, 5d-7a. Also see, R. Kook, Orot ha’Torah 4:3.
[iv] Avot D'Rebbe Natan 30b; R. Tzvi Freeman writes: "Torah, you see, is not a staid book, nor is it a malleable plastic, but a living organism. An organism adapts, but doesn't change. As the weather changes and so, too, its environment, the polar bear, the dolphin and the bacterial cell find the keys within their own DNA to cope with the new and survive. Similarly, as the Jewish People travel through the vicissitudes of history, storming every form of culture and society ever known to humankind, they look in the Torah and find, "Yes! Here is the solution for this particular situation. All was foreseen, everything was provided for us, by He by whose word all things come to be." This seems to be a poetic understanding of the principle that "all that was establish by the rabbis was established like it is found in the Torah - kol mah d'tiknu rabbonan k'eyn d'oraisa tiknu."
[v] R. Kook, Orot ha’Torah 2:1 writes “Every person who learns Torah brings the wisdom of Torah out from potential to actual…The Holy One, blessed is He, desires that the Torah should become great...” See previous post on The Torah as a World.
[vi] Rabbi Simon said, "There is no plant without an angel in Heaven tending it and telling it, 'Grow!'" (Genesis Rabba 10:7). Rupert Sheldrake, a controversial biologist writes: "I first became convinced that living organisms were organized by fields when I was doing research at Cambridge University on the development of plants. How do plants grow from simple embryos inside seeds into foxgloves, sequoias or bamboos? How do leaves, flowers and fruits take up their characteristic forms. These questions are about what biologists call morphogensis, the coming into being of form....This is one of the major unsolved problems in biology.
“Since the 1920's, many biologists who have studied the development of plans and animals have been convinced that in addition to the genes, there must be organizing fields within the developing organism, called morphogenetic fields. These fields contain, as it were, invisible plans or blueprints for the various organs and for the organism as a whole.
These fields help explain not only normal development, but also regeneration. If you cut a willow tree or a flatwork into pieces, each piece can regenerate to form an entire new organism. Like other kinds of fields, morphogenetic fields are intrinsically holistic. The isolated parts retain the capacity to re-form a whole organism, because each part is still associated with the field of the whole organism.
R. Kook, Hakdama l’Eyn Aya writes that just as hashgacha/providence determines the timing of new technology this is true in Torah as well. The position that Torah is guided by hashgacha is famously attributed to the Chazon Ish concerning relying on new manuscripts.
[vii] One view of the Torah is that it was originally more flexible and intuitive, and it became, and continues to become, more and more detailed-oriented. For example, R. Meir Levin writes in his edition of Matteh Dan (but based on R. Reuven Margolies, in his edition of Sh’eilot u’Teshuvot min ha’Shamayim) It is likely that other observances [not just Tefillin] were also given from the beginning with a variety and latitude regarding how they could be fulfilled. A great many commandments are fulfilled through an experience “in the heart.” Any a number of observances that awakened necessary feelings and emotions could be Biblically acceptable in the fulfillment of these commandments. Among them are such common rituals as payer, mourning, enjoyment of festivals, remembering the Sabbath, Exodus, Miriam, and the incident of Golden Calf, as well as certain declarations. Much later, the Rabbis formalized these observances and standardized their rituals, nbecause the times had changed and they were at risk of not being properly kept and preserved if left to the discretion of each individual. At this point disputes arose about how best to accomplish the purpose of the commandment, or as to details of what the original enactment standardizing them had been.”
For a long discussion of such an approach see Metahalakha by Moshe Koppel, or a summary of it by R. Micha Berger. Also see the famous Rapture and Reconstruction by R. Hayyim Soloveitchik.
R. Nathan Lopez Cardozo, in Crises, Covenant & Creativity (pg. 124), based on the S'forno (Shemot 25:8-9; Vayikra 11:1-2), writes: "In the generation precding the Torah, the relationship of the body to the soul was such that essentially the soul retained the upper hand...But as impurity slowly crept into the heart of man, it became necessary for him to muster more effort to control his own inclinations. Threfore, by the time the Jews left Egypt, they needed much more spiritual instruction to condition themselves to the service of G-d. While their ancestors found it posible to do so with only a few mitzvot, the Jews of the Exodus needed literally hundreds." This gives a different, and positive, perspective to the "chumra phenomenon" so prevelant today.
On a slightly different note, this reminded me of a quote from C.S.. Lewis (The Great Divorce, pg. vi) “Even on the biological level life is not like a pool but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.” In other words, specification is not just a response to exile or sin, as R. Levin and R. Cardozo would have it, but is a natural part of the growth process.
[viii] This is a major theme in modern Jewish philosophy, especially in the writings of R. Soloveitchik and R. Kook. See Orot ha’Kodesh, Sha’ar Rishon, and Orot ha’Torah, Chapter 3. Also see The Jewish Action Reader (pgs. 16-31), “One Soul’s Adventure: Spiritual Growth Through Halachah,” by Anthony S. Fiorino.