We’re accustomed to Jewish synagogues having Hebrew names such as “Beth Shalom,” but the terrible massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh not long ago brought our attention to the name of that particular place of worship.
The theological concept of the tree of life has several layers of meaning.
We first encounter the term in the second chapter of Genesis, where creation is described as including a garden: “And out of the ground the God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Some take this to represent that in this garden Adam and Eve would have eternal life. There is some debate, however, as to whether the Hebrew reads as two separate trees or one tree that also held the knowledge of good and evil.
Either way, our ancestors chose to do what was forbidden and lost their original home.
Ignorance was bliss, as they say, but even before they understood right from wrong, our forbears apparently had free will. Unfortunately, they used it to make some very bad choices. The Genesis story, whether believed literally or not, points to some of the problems of human nature.
As soon as there were two humans on the earth, their desire for more, especially more power, got them into trouble. As soon as they understood good from evil, they started lying and blaming. By the time there were four, a whole range of problems like jealousy and competition crept in and, finally, it wasn’t long before the first recorded murder.
This is not a very pretty scene, but we can’t forget that God had their best interests in mind originally. Even with the bad choices, we are told, somewhere in all that was God’s image.
In the Middle Ages, a certain group of Jews developed their own theology about the Tree of Life. They made an elaborate tree-shaped diagram which they used to symbolize the interconnections of all the cosmos. It isn’t an actual tree image, but a series of interconnected lines and circles that resemble the shape of a tree.
As in the Genesis story, the center of the tree is the great energy from which all that exists springs forth. There is movement in all directions, just as a tree has its life force flowing up from the roots and out to the branches. The “Tree of Life” of Kabballah Judaism is far too complex to get into here, but it is a primary symbol for some Jewish sects.
There is also another layer of understanding that is popular in Christian art. The icon of the Tree of Life is an image of a large tree with broad, strong roots stretching across the bottom and flowing branches with twining leaves spreading out. In the middle of the tree trunk is the crucified Christ.
All these images speak of a single source of with all life coming from it and made living by the energy that courses through everything from this source. How tragic that a place made sacred by this name and this belief should be the scene of such a horrendous taking of life. While these victims were sending out the nourishing energy of prayer and celebrating their unity in the God of Life, the poisonous power of hatred came to stop them.
Their killer refused to believe that they and he shared a single root. But there is some comfort in our belief that the Tree of Life was God’s promise from the beginning and that pruning only makes for better fruit.