Painting a Tree Red
In the Talmud, in Masechet Shabbat, daf 67A, the rabbis discuss a number of incantations to heal illnesses. They speak about monsters that inhabit the outhouse and what to say when you enter that scary place. They speak about fevers and healing wounds, about dog's hairs, locust eggs and fox's teeth. They list magical words to recite and biblical verses that are permitted for healing.
Learning Daf Yomi is not just about Jewish law; in Masechet Shabbat it takes its learners back in time and offers them a glimpse of life two thousand years ago. Discussions in Masechet Shabbat are about Shabbat observance (and more!) and more specifically, what we might be allowed to carry or wear on Shabbat according to Jewish law. On its pages, crowded with records of thoughts and discussions, it introduces us to hats women and men would wear then and jewelry which adorned people and toys that children would play with. It brings us into people's kitchens and gives us tours of their ovens and other items which kept food hot and cold. It is a fascinating journey back in time.
Daf 67A of Masechet Shabbat is not just fascinating on an anthropological level; not so hidden between the lines it realistically uncovers people's fears and weaknesses. Those fears in the night that we all have that something dreadful could happen, the fears born of helplessness and not knowing and feeling alone. When faced with the scary and the unknown, it helps to have a talisman, a formula which will help to give us a cure and give us the courage to keep going. This is addressed on page 67a
Of all of the fascinating things that happen on Masechet Shabbat Daf 67a, the item that struck me the most interesting was painting a tree red when the tree was shedding its fruit too early or in a weakened state.
Wasn’t it taught in a baraita: A tree that sheds its fruit prematurely, one paints it and colors it with red paint and loads it with stones? Granted, he is permitted to load it with stones because that action produces an actual benefit, i.e., he does that so that its strength will weaken. Sometimes a tree sheds its fruits prematurely due to excessive blossoming. Sustaining those blossoms taxes the tree, rendering it incapable of sustaining the fruits that grow from the blossoms. The stones were used to slightly weaken the tree when blossoming, thereby reducing the number of blossoms that the tree must nourish. However, painting it with red paint, what healing is he performing with that action?
The Gemara explains: He does so so that people will see the tree and pray for mercy for it.
Imagine walking down the street, an ancient lane in an ancient town. A neighborhood not unlike our own now; different perhaps in the setting, the aesthetics and the building material. No cars parked in driveways, no buses running, no telephone poles, no cyclists riding by. But a neighborhood that houses people. Houses with windows to look into, doors to enter. Extended families living together, eating together, fighting and laughing. People working, making a living, children running and making noise, donkeys braying and the smells of cooking. Imagine walking down that street and seeing a tree trunk painting red among the other trees you view. A red tree trunk perhaps surrounded with the flowers that prematurely fell, or fruit that fell before ripening. The owner of that tree making the red paint from herbs and crushed stones and using a brush to paint the trunk.
That owner of the tree was using the red paint as a sign to others passing by in the neighborhood to look at that suffering tree and inspire them to pray for the tree's health and strength. Long before that, the Hebrews used blood to paint their doorways so that the angel of death would pass over their homes when spreading plague; in this case, the red paint acts as a sign to request mercy and prayers for the health of the tree.
That painted trunk illustrates vividly the power of the neighborhood. No matter where a neighborhood is, no matter how big or how small, how wealthy or how poor, the base assumption is that it is composed of people who care. That caring can be manifested in so many ways. A cake brought to a new neighbor, checking in on an elderly neighbor, watching out for each other in the neighborhood, being kind to our neighbors. And let us not forget praying for your neighbor's tree. What an eloquent way to define what neighbors can do for one another and how powerful our thoughts and prayers can be for someone or something that is suffering a loss. It is a realization that people experience loss that no one is beyone experiencing those fears that we have of the dark, of sickness, of the fear of the unknown.
There are so many neighborhoods right now who have symbolic tree trunks painted red. They are hoping that you will notice that tree trunk and pray for the recovery. Prayer and positive energy sent and additional positive actions to take to help heal that tree, to help heal that person, to help heal that neighborhood, to help heal that country. A powerful symbol of what is and what can be if our neighbors have our backs. Painting a tree trunk red.
A human cry asking for people to notice, to help. You don't have to look far to see that tree trunk. The power is yours to step up and help heal. The power is in your hands, in your thoughts and in your prayers.
Thank you to Yardaena Osband and Anne Gordon of the Talking Talmud podcast for inspiring this blog post.