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Seeing the wood for the trees

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Upon returning a Torah scroll to the Ark, the custom is to recite the verse, “It’s an eitz [tree] of life to those who take hold onto it” – by hand, according to Rashi’s famous commentary – “and those who support it are praiseworthy.”

This verse comes from the Book of Proverbs, composed by the wisest of all men – King Solomon himself. The verse, it seems, compares the Torah to a tree of life. Presumably this is because the Torah, like a tree, provides life via the fruits it produces.

But with the continuation of the verse, this explanation goes pear-shaped. According to it, the life-giving benefits of Torah are achieved by taking hold of it in one’s hands and supporting it with one’s hands, not through eating its fruit. Why no mention of the fruit? Furthermore, how does taking hold of a tree by hand give life? And who takes hold of a tree by hand, anyway?

The continuation of the verse also seems strange: “And its supporters are praiseworthy.” What’s praiseworthy about supporting a tree? And who supports a tree, anyway?

But King Solomon wasn’t barking up the wrong tree. He was teaching us the most amazing, paradigm-shifting and practical lesson imaginable about Torah.

The key to unlocking this lesson lies in the translation of the word “eitz”. While it’s true that the Hebrew word “eitz” can mean “tree”, it can also be translated as “wood”. Given that wood comes from a tree, this isn’t over the fence. But it can be confusing. How does one know whether the word “eitz” is referring to a tree or a piece of wood?

The answer is simple: from the context. If the context is about fruit eaters, it makes sense to say that “eitz” refers to a tree. If, however, the context is hands-on workers, it makes more sense to say that “eitz” is referring to wood.

So, let’s return to our verse that calls Torah an eitz of life. Is the verse referring to a tree or a piece of wood? Well, let’s look at the context – are fruit eaters about taking hold of and providing support to things? Not really. Are hands-on builders? Most definitely.

King Solomon is teaching us that the Torah is an eitz of life. This isn’t because it’s a tree that provides life-giving fruit that we can consume, but because it’s wood that provides life-giving material that we can use to make a hands-on contribution.

As we return the Torah to the Ark after having read it, we declare that we, like King Solomon, value the Torah not as fruit eaters, but as builders.

We’re people who are able to transform what we consume from the Torah into what we can contribute from it; people who are able to tell the wood from the tree.

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