Inspired by a conversation with Chief Druid Kristoffer Hughes, Rabbi Rami shares his insights on the spiritual significance of trees in both Druidry and Judaism.
Reading the very first sentence of Chief Druid Kristoffer Hughes’ The Book of Druidry: A Complete Introduction to the Magic and Wisdom of the Celtic Mysteries brought me up short: “There is an old Welsh proverb that says Dod yn ol at fy nghoed, which literally translates as To come back to my trees.” If you want to hear how this proverb is pronounced in old Welsh, you should listen to my conversation with Kristoffer Hughes on the Spirituality+Health Podcast. If you want to know what it meant to me and what it might mean for you, read on.
When I read come back to my trees, I knew immediately what my trees were: the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, both trees found in the first chapter of Sefer Bereishit, a book of family legends we Jews have been passing down from generation to generation for over three thousand years. You may also know this book as Genesis.
According to Hughes, “when we return to the trees, something remarkable happens: we discover who we are, who we were meant to be, and how we can express that to the world at large. But to say this is to imply that we have somehow wandered away from the trees; what does that mean?”
In the Jewish telling of the legend of these trees, we didn’t wander away; we were exiled from them. The story is well-known, but not rightly known. Most people imagine that the first man and woman were exiled from the Garden (during what Christians call The Fall) and hence from the trees because they ate of the Tree of Knowledge against the express will of God. But this isn’t what the story says at all.
If you read the story in its original Hebrew, only the man is exiled from the Garden: “YHVH banished him from the Garden of Eden, to work the soil from which he was taken” (Bereishit 3:23; only the man was taken from the soil, the woman was taken from the man, hence the story tells us only the man was exiled from the Garden). The reason for man’s exile was that after eating from the Tree of Knowledge the man, but not the woman, was alienated from God and locked into a dualistic worldview of good vs. evil, whereas the woman avoided such alienation and knew the world as a union of opposites: good and evil.
Fearing that the man would eat from the Tree of Life and become permanently locked into this dualistic state, YHVH exiled him, and him alone, from the Garden (Bereishit 3:22-23). The woman is not exiled from the Garden nor is it said of her that she is alienated from God. On the contrary, she was made wise by her eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and was transformed from a mere human to “the mother of all living things” (Bereshit 3:20). The woman is found outside the Garden to guide the man back to the Tree when at last the man sees through the delusion of dualistic consciousness.
As I understand things, returning to our trees is returning to our true nature. What is that true nature? In the second chapter of Bereishit just prior to the story of the two Trees, we learn that the earth was lifeless because it lacked two elements essential to life: water and a caretaker (Bereishit 2:4-5). God caused water to come up from the earth (adamah in Hebrew) and then fashioned an earthling (adam in Hebrew) to serve and protect the earth (Bereishit 2:6-8; 15). This is a very different legend than the one about people dominating all life that appears in Genesis 1, but it is the only legend that is linked to Trees, so it is this story we return to when we return to our trees.
This is our true nature: we are the formless YHVH (the ineffable Name of God derived from the Hebrew verb to be and best rendered as Is’ing or Existing) manifest in the multiple forms of existence. When we return to our trees we leave the delusion of dualism—the insistence that opposites are separate and irreconcilable—and return to the unity of opposites represented by the Tree of Good and Evil in the greater nonduality of Aliveness symbolized by The Tree of Life. It is to this realization that we return when we return to our trees.
I am neither Welsh nor Druid, but I am forever indebted to both and the wisdom of Dod yn ol at fy nghoed.
Listen to the podcast episode that inspired this essay here.