Daf Yomi Sotah 23
Imagine you’ve just been swept into a fast-running river. You’re crashing downstream, barely able to keep your head above water. Suddenly you see a large tree protruding from the riverbank. You reach out and miraculously are able to grab onto it. You’re holding on with all your might, knowing that should you lose your grip for just a moment, you will be pulled into the rapids and won’t make it out alive. But it’s hard to keep holding on. You’re crying out for help, struggling to hold on, feeling your fingers loosening . . .
Rabbi Eliezer taught: (If you got confused) you should not raise it up for a pleasant aroma, but you may raise it up for trees.
Rashi explains: If one confused animal parts from a chatas offering (which should be eaten by the donor) with an olah offering (which must be completely burned on the altar), Rabbi Eliezer says you may burn the mixture on the altar; and we consider the chatas parts, not as sacrificial (G-d’s “pleasant aroma”), but as equivalent to tree-wood that is present to fuel the fire.
The world we live in is very confusing. The Zohar calls it an alma d’shikra – a world of falsehood and illusion. It is very easy to lose one’s way as we try to navigate our path.
When faced with the confusion of this world, Rabbi Eliezer gives us a simple piece of advice: don’t follow your nose. Aromas are deceiving. You can have the vilest of person who sprays on a little cologne and suddenly smells like the Garden of Eden. Smells are even less of an indicator of internal quality than looks. Sadly, most people seek to satisfy themselves with the pleasant aroma – with the sweet-smelling artificialities this world has to offer. But, as our Sages teach us “raicha lav milsa hi” – smells are meaningless.
How do you raise up your life? With the trees, says Rabbi Eliezer. The key to a meaningful sojourn on Earth is to seek out the Tree of Life. We are all familiar with the famous dictum of King Solomon. The Torah, “she is a tree of life for those who hold on to it and those who support it are happy;” we recite the verse when we return the Torah to the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark).
How do we grasp the Tree of Life? In the Nefesh Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin offers the analogy of being swept into the rushing river. He teaches that the secret to success in this world is to constantly keep this parable in mind. If a person would only imagine that letting go of the tree would mean instant death by drowning, he would never relax his grip for even a moment!
Why is it called the Tree of Life? The Tiferes Yisrael explains the verse in Bereishis where Hashem notes that eating from the tree would enable Adam and Eve to “live forever.” Torah provides eternal life. Life in this world. Life in Heaven. And life in the World to Come. It is the ultimate elixir of immortality.
It’s not easy to keep hanging on when the forces of this world are pulling you away from that life-saving branch. May you merit a grip that gets stronger and stronger as you make your way through life!