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Grass, trees, and Shavuot?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Krakow, in his 16th century note on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), states that we are accustomed to place grasses in synagogues and homes on Shavuot as a reminder of the joy of the giving of Torah. The Chofetz Chayim (Mishna Berurah) explains that there were grasses around Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, in his 17th century commentary on Shulchan Aruch, states that there is a custom to bring trees into synagogues and homes on Shavuot as a reminder that on Shavuot we are judged regarding the fruit of the trees. We are thereby encouraged to pray for the fruit of the trees on Shavuot. This is based on the Mishnah in tractate Rosh Hashanah which states that on Shavuot a judgment is made concerning the quality and quantity of the fruits of trees.

While contemplating these beautiful customs the following questions arise: How do we reconcile the fact that the Torah was given in the barren desert with the idea of lush vegetation? Why is Shavuot specifically the time of judgment regarding the fruit of the trees? Perhaps the answers lie in the fact that our sages compare the human being to a tree. In fact, our sages say that the main progeny of a person is their good deeds and not their physical offspring. The Torah provides the necessary nourishment and guidance for us to produce beautiful good deeds, just as water and sunlight promote the health of a fruit-bearing tree. Our ability to absorb nourishment and inspiration from the Holy Torah and to produce good deeds and positively impact our world is noted by God on Shavuot – the day of the giving of the Torah. God judges us measure for measure. The degree to which we are able to nourish ourselves (human tree) and produce fruit (good deeds) will be directly proportional to the ability of our fruit trees to absorb nourishment and produce fruit.

The Torah itself is a tree of life and when embraced has the power to transform the human being from a desert into a flourishing oasis.