Are you a tree person or a forest person? Now I know you live in neither, but dwell in an apartment or (if you’re lucky) a house. But what I mean is, that some of us are naturally inclined to focus on the details (or, ‘trees’) of life, while others focus on the big picture (forest).
I heard a Rav once say that BT’s are, generally speaking, ‘forest people’, they’re drawn by and can grasp the ‘big picture’—the ‘why’ of being Jewish. Often it was a thirst for an encompassing ‘big picture’ world-view that made sense, which fueled the search that brought them here. Yet, due to their inexperience and less rule-oriented upbringing, they also tend struggle with the practical details of Jewish life, its ‘hows.’
FFB’s, on the other hand, have the opposite challenge. They’ve been learning and absorbing Yiddishkeit’s ‘ways and means’ since early childhood. The ‘trees’ aren’t a problem for them, but all too often, that’s what it remains—a group of isolated trees. The bigger questions of why they are doing all this, and where it’s supposed to be leading, are often ignored, or even tacitly devalued. As the Rav put it: “FFB’s know how to be Jewish, but not why to be Jewish, while the BT’s know why to be Jewish, but not how.”
(Maybe that’s why we’ve all been thrown all together in this generation—to teach each other, since both ‘tree’ and ‘forest’ vision are vital for a vibrant and genuine Torah life.)
This ‘how’ and ‘why’ dichotomy doesn’t only exist in the Torah world. I believe it’s the linchpin in the fallacious ‘religion/science’ debate. The scientists keep mistaking ‘how’ for ‘why’, whereas the (non-Jewish) religious mislabel ‘why’ as ‘how’.
Let me illustrate:
The question is posed: “How does a huge tree ever grow from a tiny seed?”
“How? Because G-d willed it so.” Confidently chimes the clergyman, (explaining the ‘why’ under the misnomer of ‘how’).
“Oh, yeah?” the scientist scoffs. “That’s not why it grows. It grows because the DNA tells the XYZ cells to…, etc., etc.”
The scientist has given a good exposition of the ‘how’s’ (i.e. how Hashem chose to deploy the wisdom of creation to make a tree grow), but his vain mistake is to think that ‘how’ equals ‘why’, and that discovering a process somehow nullifies its creator, (which is about as logical as saying “Aha, I found brushstrokes! That mean the Mona Lisa must have painted itself.”)!
‘How’s’ and ‘why’s’, the ‘trees’ and ‘forests’ also play themselves out in cooking. We can look at a recipe—its ingredients, utensils needed, and procedures—as a group of unrelated ‘trees’. Or, we can step back and try to see the ‘forest’ of why’s behind it. We can ask ourselves: Why does it say add all the wet ingredients before the dry? Why does this chicken recipe get baked uncovered and that one, covered? Why does it say this dish is okay to make in advance and reheat, while that one has to be made fresh? Why do they call this ingredient ‘optional’ and that one, not?
Questions like these can lead us to grasp the bigger picture and processes behind cooking, which in turn opens the doors of our own personal creativity—to confidently adapt recipes and even to ‘fly solo’ and even dare to leave the cookbook closed.
Tu B’Shvat is when fruit takes center stage and one of my favorite ‘fruit’ stories (I think I heard it in the name of the Chofetz Chaim) is of a Rav who’s walking through an outdoor fruit market, when he comes across an old woman sitting and wailing.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, concerned.
“I sell apples here,” she moans, “and some hooligans just came by and knocked over my whole stand! Apples are rolling everywhere and people are grabbing them up for themselves just as fast. I’m a poor woman and now my whole livelihood is ruined!”
The Rav feels the woman’s pain, but knows that now isn’t the time for commiseration, but for action. “So what are you waiting for?” he asks her. “Let’s get down on the ground and grab some up, too. At least that way you’ll have at least something left to sell!”
This fruitful parable hit home for me, as lately I’ve been feeling flickers of despair in my usually burning quest to bring the ‘forest/why’s’ of Torah truths to acheinu beis Yisroel and the world. What’s another book? What’s another blog post or outreach email? The world is so flooded with (mis)information these days, the truth is so trampled and scattered, why even bother?
I once read an article by an esteemed Torah educator who said that virtually everyone she knows past the age of 50 has given up their idealism and world-changing dreams. Well, without giving away my age, I started to fear I was about to become one of those statistics. Then the story hit me. Yes, nowadays the truth is rolling around in the dust; people’s hearts and minds are being grabbed up by myriads of distractions and lies built upon lies. But does that mean that we Yidden should just sit weeping in front of our overturned applecart of truth? That we who strive to be m’kadesh Shem shomayim shouldn’t ‘grab too’?
So, whether you’re a ‘tree’ person or a ‘forest’ person, now’s the time to ‘branch’ out and bring people back to their ‘roots’. Just plant a few ‘seeds’ and you may be amazed to see what grows!