Variations on a pedagogy for teaching bal tashḥit: on the mindfulness of plucking leaves

Image: Pluck! by the Busy Brain (License: CC-BY 2.0)

Last year, while preparing the text of Gale & Goodman’s popular seder for Tu Bishvat, The Trees are Davvening, I came across an important and fairly modern story that testifies to important Jewish values of bal tashḥit (not needlessly wasting or wantonly destroying) in the context of our relationship with non-human life and nature. The problem I immediately encountered was one of attribution — the story featured Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine, while the story as I remembered it featured the fifth and sixth rebbes of ḤaBaD. The story in The Trees are Davvening quoted verbatim the story as recounted by Rav Aryeh Levin (1885-1969) in A Tzaddik in Our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, p.107 by Simcha Raz (Feldheim 1975).

Once when Rav Kook was walking in the fields, lost deep in thought, the young student with him plucked a leaf off a branch. Rav Kook was visibly shaken by this act, and turning to his companion he said gently, “Believe me when I tell you, I never simply pluck a leaf or a blade of grass or any living thing, unless I have to.” He explained further, “Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song and breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of the Creation.” For the first time the young student understood what it means to show compassion to all creatures.

A remarkably similar story first appears in Likkutei Dibburim, Vol. I, page 177 in English (1957-58). Likkutei Dibburim is a collection of talks given in Yiddish between 1929 and 1950 by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the previous rebbe of the Lubavitch Hasidim. In his retelling, Rabbi Yosef Yitzḥok Schneerson (1880-1950) recalls when he was about 11 16 and was walking with his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920) in the fields near Bolivke:

One day in the summer of 1896, I was strolling with my father in the field in the country resort of Bolivke, near Lubavitch. The crops were almost ripe; the grain and the grass rippled in a gentle breeze.

“Behold G!dliness”, my father declared. “Every movement of each single ear of grain and blade of grass was included in the Primeval Thought of Adam Kadmon, He who watches and gazes until the end of all generations. Divine Providence causes this thought to be realized for the sake of a specific G!dly intent.” As we walked on, we found ourselves in a forest. I continued, proceeding deep in contemplation of what I had just been told concerning Divine Providence, overwhelmed by the gentleness and earnestness of my father’s explanation.

As people often do, I plucked the leaf from a tree that I passed by without taking particular notice, and held it for a while in my hand. As I walked on, engrossed in thought, ever so often I tore off small pieces from the leaf and tossed them to the ground.

My father then said: “The Ari z”l teaches that…every leaf is a created being with Divine vitality which G!d created with a specific intent and role in the ultimate purpose of creation…

“We were just discussing the subject of Divine Providence and without any thought at all you plucked the leaf, held it in your hand, played with it…tore it up into little pieces, and scattered it in various places.

“How can a person act so light-mindedly in relation to one of G!d’s creations? This leaf is something created by the Almighty for a particular reason. It has a G!d-given vitality, it has a body and it has a life. In what way is the leaf’s ‘I’ smaller than your ‘I’?”…

While a similar observation could have been made by Rav Kook (who elsewhere writes eloquently on nature and human responsibility) it must be considered likely or possible that Simcha Raz or Rabbi Aryeh Levin misattributed this story to Rav Kook. On the other hand, the two variants of this story might testify to a traditional pedagogical approach for conveying the meaning of bal tashḥit to students.

Although these stories directly relate to the tradition of bal tashḥit, similar teachings can be found in earlier Talmudic sources. See Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 10:6 (translation by Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner):

א”ר סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב, שאין לו מזל ברקיע שמכה אותו, ואומר לו גדל, הה”ד (איוב לח) הידעת חקות שמים אם תשים משטרו בארץ וגו’, לשון שוטר‏

Rabbi Simon said: Every single blade of grass has a Mazal [lit. constellation] in the rakia (heavenly firmament) which strikes it and says, ‘Grow!’ This is the meaning of the verse (Job 38:33), ‘Do you know the laws of the heavens, and can you place their control [mishtar] over the earth?’ Mishtar is an expression of shoteir [meaning, an enforcing officer].)

(Many thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin for offering the source reference to Likkutei Dibburim above. He adds, “As you recall, [Simcha] Raz’s book mentions some beautiful words of encouragement the Rebbe gave to Rabbi Levin.”)

About Aharon N. Varady

Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

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