Rabbi Arthur Waskow
EYTZ CHAYYIM/THE TREE OF LIFE
"Eytz chayyim" in Proverbs, where the tradition has connected it with Torah, is talking about Chochma, Wisdom. The passage goes:
13 Happy is the one who finds wisdom,
The one who attains understanding.
14 Her [i.e. Wisdom's] value in trade is better than silver,
Her yield, greater than gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies;
All of your goods cannot equal her.
16 In her right hand is length of days, In her left, riches and honor.
17 Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful.
18 She is a tree of life to those who grasp her,
And whoever holds on to her is happy.
This can be understood as the Ultimate Wisdom, beyond even Torah; or the Sphirah Chochma; or Torah.
To the Kabbalists, Eytz Chayyim became God's own self, and that is why the Kabbalists of Ts'fat reshaped Tu B'Shvat into the new year of The Tree -- the rebirth, as it were, of God's own self. (They read Talmud -- Rosh Hashamah La'Ilan, not "ilanot," not trees, but "the tree," as referring to he Tree. And of course Kabbalah long before that had imaged the pattern of the Sphirot as a tree and spoke of the whole universe as a Divine Tree whose roots are in Heaven and whose fruits are -- us, and all the world. .
Did that have origins in the sacredness of the Asherah, the trees that symbolized divinity among some Israelites whom the Prophets condemned, striving to uproot this form of worship? Very possible, but I think it is not provable that the one leads to the other. Orchrd-keepers surely felt the sacredness of trees.
Today we do not have to be stuck either in the worship of trees or the rage against the worship of trees; we can see the whole planet as a single Tree of Life.
by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center