Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Potential for Growth

Two weeks ago I learned a Tu B'shvat sicha from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. One of the lessons the sicha focused on is what can be learned from the fact that the regalim correspond to the crop cycle (Pesach is the time of barley, Shavuos is the time of reaping the wheat, and Sukkos the in-gathering). While the Rebbe analyzed the spiritual insights to be gained from the physical growth of crops, I personally took a powerful message on physical soil management out of his spiritual analogy. Here is the excerpt from the sicha:
[I]t's possible to learn about the manner of avoda of Neshamos Yisroel from the growth process of crops.

The growth of a grain crop does not originate from the wheat seed itself which is planted in the soil; rather, it comes through the decay (riqvun) of the wheat seed which is planted. By way of planting, the seed decays and becomes botel to the potential for growth (koach ha'tzomeach) in the soil. This, in turn, arouses that very potential for growth which is in the soil to cause stalks of wheat to grow. And from this another concept is understood--that the addition which comes about through the growth is not strictly an addition in quantity (that from one wheat seed comes about quite a number of seeds), but rather it can be said that it is like a new creation, something wholly different.

The yerida and aliya of the soul is a similar process. The way to achieve "growth" of the soul through "being planted on the earth" is that through a person being in a movement (tenuah) of bitul (similar to the concept of decay)--like we say in davening, "May my soul be like dust to all," which means avoda in a way of kabalas ol (which is "the beginning of avoda and its principal and root," as is written in the holy Tanya)--and then through the subsequent ascent of the soul and its "growth" it achieves an aliya completely beyond measure, and then that soul becomes like a new existence, literally.

(Likutei Sichos Chelek 36) (translation and adaptation for readability my own).
In other words, the process of a seed being planted down in the soil and then arising out of the soil, strong and bearing fruit, is analogous to the descent of the soul in this world and the potential for "spiritual growth" (a concept encapsulated in the chassidic maxim "yerida l'tzorech aliya").

But what caught my attention was the concept (as I understood it) that there is something in the soil that a seed needs in order to realize its full potential (which was referred to in the sicha as the "koach ha'tzomeach"), and that the soil "reacts" to the desire of a seed to grow. The Rebbe is presenting a piece of traditional agricultural wisdom as a matter of fact. I wonder how many people who learned this sicha completely glossed over this idea. This touches on the argument I made in my first post that there is a whole layer of understanding that we're missing in our learning because we've become separated from the land, despite the fact that the Torah and much of Jewish thought throughout the ages is rooted in an agricultural view of the world. Sure, there is a lot of content to absorb in a single sicha, and this was probably not the most important concept. It's true, there are many lessons to be learned and angles for each person to connect with. But the point is, an idea like the koach hatzomeach and similar themes in Jewish thought are not amorphous, lofty concepts. They are very real facts of life, and without knowing and understanding something so basic, like the Rebbe did, how can we really expect to plumb the depths of any Jewish literature?

So that we can start to appreciate our traditional wisdom, I will start to break down what I understood the Rebbe to have been referring to. "One tablespoon of soil contains more than one million living organisms . . . Soil isn't just dirt. A square meter of topsoil can contain a thousand different species of animals." (Keith, Lierre. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. PM Press, 2009, p. 18.) Ecologically speaking, soil is a living organism that interacts with plants and helps them reach their full potential. The community of microorganisms in soil "slowly breaks humus [topsoil] down into the chemical elements plants need to grow, elements including, but not limited to, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This process is as much biological as chemical, involving the symbiosis of plants and the mycorrhizal fungi that live in and among their roots; the fungi offer soluble nutrients to the roots, receiving a drop of sucrose in return." (Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. Penguin Books, 2006, p. 147.) In fact, some plants, like many legumes for instance, have clearly-established symbiotic relationships with these microscopic communities. If you pull up the roots of, for instance, a lupine plant, you'll most likely see little white clumps interspersed on the roots. Those are nodules where bacteria are working to fix nitrogen from the air and make it accessible to the plant. Without those bacteria, in other words, without the soil reacting to the needs of the plant, it would certainly not grow to its full potential, and it is doubtful whether it would grow at all.

A counter-argument might be: "But plants can grow without soil! What about hydroponics?" It's true, a seed can grow without soil. However, a plant that grew in rich, active soil is more complete, in a deeper way, than one grown with chemicals in a sterile hydroponic medium.

As farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka writes in his opus The One Straw Revolution, "Gravel culture, sand culture, and hydroponics are getting more popular all the time. The vegetables are grown with chemical nutrients and by light which is filtered through a vinyl covering. It is strange that people have come to think of these vegetables grown chemically as 'clean' and safe to eat. Foods grown in soil balanced by the action of worms, microorganisms, and decomposing animal manure are the cleanest and most wholesome of all." (New York Review of Books, 1978, 2009. p. 66)

The same can be said of the soul--A soul can exist basking in G-dly light without coming down to this lowly world, but you can't compare the completeness and advantage it attains in this world to before it came when it was basking in G-dly light.

Throughout history, plant agriculture was conceived of as more or less a magical and miraculous process (which, in fact, it is). Indeed, as Yidden, every single day we acknowledge that plant growth is beyond our power when we daven that G-d should bless us with "all the varieties of [the year']s produce for good." (Siddur Tehillat Hashem. Merkos L'Inyonei Chinush, 2003, p. 48.) But farmers work hard, don't they? Shouldn't we give them a lot of credit? Well, they do work hard, but they have no control over the fact that a seed wants to grow and the soil wants to help it. A very hard-working farmer I know once wrote, "Nothing we do has anything to do with the fact that a tomato grows. We may seed, transplant, hoe, water, thin, sucker, tie up and clip, and harvest--but ultimately, the fact of a tomato at all is completely beyond us."

But today, in large part, we don't think about agriculture. We don't think about where our food comes from, and as a People, many of us have forgotten about facts of life like the koach hatzomeach, and when, for instance, the Rebbe refers to that concept (or the Gemara or Halacha), we lose out. We also lose out when we use our money to support agricultural practices that either kill the soil or deplete the rich topsoil layer that has been built up by hardworking microorganisms for hundreds or thousands of years. That should suffice for the discerning.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Tu B'shvat and is getting excited for Adar, as I know I am.


  1. I just had my almost 14 year old son read this post. He sometimes struggles with the relevancy of the things he is learning but I think this opened his eyes a bit. Thanks.

  2. Since you asked: I wouldn't exactly say that the 'and that the soil "reacts" to the desire of a seed to grow', although chemically speaking you can view the seed and and the surrounding soil as a system, and as such the seed will cause processes in the surrounding soil. Rather, the soil presents an environment to the seed, which will eventually begin to react and grow if the correct conditions in the soil are present.

    Our existence in this world is similar, as you point out. We are placed in this lowest of all worlds, in an environment that is seemingly destructive. Like the seed, we are seemingly consumed by the environment that surrounds us. However, given the proper conditions, this seemingly destructive environment is for our benefit and can propel us to begin the process of growth and reach our full potential in this world and be ready for the harvest, which can be seen as the world to come.

  3. Upper West Side Mom- I'm very happy you two enjoyed it.

    Adam- Thank you, although I didn't find that particularly constructive. The soil does react in a very real way (unless you're differentiating "soil" from "organisms," but I think that's really a false dichotomy).

    Here is a more technical summary (and perhaps it is more illustrative of the reactive nature of soil): "The [growth] process involves complicated signals between the bacteria and the roots. In the first stages, the bacteria multiply near the root and then adhere to it. Next, the small hairs on the root's surface curl around the bacteria and they enter the root. Alternatively, the bacteria may enter directly through points on the root surface. The method of entry of the bacteria into the root depends on the type of plant. Once inside the root, the bacteria multiply within thin threads. Signals stimulate cell multiplication of both the plant's cells and the bacteria and this repeated division results in a mass of root cells containing many bacterial cells. Some of these bacteria then change into a form that is able to convert gaseous nitrogen into ammonium nitrogen (that is, they can 'fix' nitrogen). These bacteria are then called bacteroids." (

  4. Yes, that is biologically/biochemically what happens. As mentioned, you can view the seed and soil as a single dynamic system. However, how does that tie into the section of the sicha of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zal, and most importantly, how is that a reflection of the way we are planted here on earth? It is the Rebbe, zal, who is seems to be making the dichotomy himself, in that he is comparing the soul to the seed and this world to the soil and seems to be giving the seed (i.e. the soul) a unique status. Of course analogies always have their limits and serve primarily as pedagogical tools. However, your analysis does raise the question of how the soil (i.e. the world the soul is placed in) becomes an equal "organism" to the "seed", something you seem to be arguing happens in agriculture (and which I agree with you is the case). I am not sure that the Rebbe, zal, would see the "seed" and "soil" as a single dynamic system, but rather see it as a "seed" and its surrounding environment. Certainly the environment is important and is referred to as the "koach ha'tzomeach". But there does not seem to be a suggestion of the symbiosis type relationship that the biological analysis invokes. At least this how it seems to be presented in this context. There are of course sources which do stress or suggest this form of symbiosis, where tikkun ha-nefesh and tikkun ha-olam go hand in.

    Your environmental message here is excellent, though I am not sure how well it ties into the sicha, even though the sicha may have served as inspiration for the message.

  5. Adam- I think you misunderstood me and the sicha, but it's good because it illustrates the point I'm making about how we think about the themes in Jewish literature.

    The false dichotomy exists if you think about the soil and the microorganisms in the soil as separate. The macroorganisms, like a legume seed, are indeed separate.

    The reason why my original analysis has to be true is that you can grow plants without soil, e.g. hydroponically. What is unique about soil then that it has this special koach? It is this additional aspect of soil, that it is alive and interacts with plants to help them achieve their full potential. You can grow vegetables without soil, but they will be of a different substance and quality compared to vegetables grown in rich soil. That's the analogy.

    The analogue is that a soul exists just fine basking in the zeev ha'shchina (like a plant can do in a hydroponic environment)... why tear it away and drop it down in this world? This world has the unique ability to facilitate a soul's growth beyond measure, which it could not have done basking in the zeev ha'shchina.

    However, in both cases it is not automatic. There are certain exterior conditions that have to be met, like the moisture and temperature in the soil, and the modus operandi of a soul in this world. If those conditions are met, then the interactive process is facilitated.

    I hope that was more clear.

  6. Uriel, in terms of the seed/soul being implanted in the soil/world which is necessary for its growth, we have no disagreement. See my first comment. Note that I said that the world was "seemingly destructive". Just as the sterile, chemically pure and controlled hydroponic environment may seen better than the soil at first glance, the upper worlds would seem to be a far better place for the soul than this lowest of all worlds. However, as pointed out, the soil/lower world has conditions that provide the best potential for growth of the seed/soul. Again, there seem to be no disagreement here.

    I also agree with you that soil isn't just soil or a static environment, but a dynamic environment, that we can view as an organism, that interacts with the seed/plant. There are really two organisms that meet and interact. However, this last point suggests not only that the soil is "just" providing a positive environment for the seed/plant, but also that the seed/plant is giving something back to the soil, that it is also affecting the soil in a positive way. There relationship becomes symbiotic. Take proper use of crop rotation as an example, where plants can give as much as they take out in various ways.

    The snippet of the sicha above does not seem to address this point. His focus is on the seed and the positive environment (which seems to be the koach ha'tzomeach) and how that environment, though seemingly destructive, is needed for proper growth. This snippet does not look into the other direction of the relationship, i.e. how the seed/soul positively affects the soil. This is not something you would expect if the relationship he is describing or focusing on was of the organism meeting (and needing) organism type you describe. If it is what he is getting at, why isn't he addressing it? If one views his concept of soil as being just as much a living entity as the one you present, why doesn't than come out?. His concept of environment in this context is certainly interactive, but is no "organism". Keep in mind that even a seed sitting in a glass of water is interactive. Substances in the water permeate the seed and interact chemically with substances in the seed and so on. Even in this case the water is more than just an inert medium the seed is suspended in, even though it is not a very favorable environment and hardly symbiotic. It is here it seems the sicha isn't really supporting the point you seem to be making and where the sich focuses on soil/world as "just" environment. Yes, as positive and needed environment, but "environment" as opposed to "organism" none the less.

    It is possible that the whole sicha presents this more dynamic view in other sections. I do not have the inclination to study it at the moment, but it would seem that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zal, would be aware of such a view and just seemed to limit the scope of his analogy because certain details where outside of the point he was trying to make.

    As this point I will just do what I should have done in this case: just smile, say "wow, neat" and walk away.

  7. I think what is bothering you is that this sicha doesn't explicitly mention avodas habirurim, and I really don't understand how that is a critique, or how that detracts from the analogy at all. There are numerous facets to a Jew's life in this world. Aliyas haneshama is one facet, and avodas habirurim is another aspect, but they're just different sides of the same coin. This excerpt and my post are focusing on one aspect with an assumption that the other exists. Now you can really smile and say "wow, neat," which might have been more constructive to begin with.

  8. A comment in response to the above seems maybe both parties are missing a crucial point, excuse me if I am wrong...

    The Rebbe explicitly states in this particular sicha that the seed becomes, literally, part of the soil. It isn't that the seed is planted, takes from the soil and grows into a plant. Rather the seeds' identity as a seed becomes null and void. There is a window of time between when you plant a seed and it begins to grow when the only thing you will find in the soil is soil. And it is davka this that the Rebbe is pointing out. That it is one system, that the two are uniquely one and give a power to each other that is impossible otherwise. On the one hand the seed provides the soil a signal as to what it should begin to produce and the soil provides the seed it's continued existence by multiplying it's numbers. Likewise, as the Rebbe points out, it must be that there is symbiosis between the neshama and this world. The neshama comes down into this world to serve 3 purposes. 1) to elevate the animal soul 2) to elevate the physical body and 3) to build a dwelling place for Hashem through interacting with all that it comes in contact. When a person has pure bittul to Hashem (like the seed to the soil), he can accomplish all three to his highest potential, but in essence what is he doing? He's sending a signal to whichever aspect he is elevating that this is the proper thing it should grow, that the physical lowly creation should unite with Hashem (just as the seed tells the soil that the best use for itself is to grow X plant). Likewise this world gives to the neshama, as has been stated previously, things that it may only acquire down in this world and not in the worlds above. And what is this? Like the soil gives the seed the ability to multiply it's numbers and fortify existence this world gives the neshama extra vitality. It is the ultimate home of the neshama where it will continue existence forever, as is explained in Chassidic thought, that Olam Haba is down here in this physical world, and of course, provides the neshama with ability to further human existence by continuing to bring more neshamas down into the world.

  9. Hello Anonymous. Thank you for your input and welcome to the blog. In all fairness, Adam actually made that argument, and I disagreed with him. I reiterate that disagreement now. As someone who has worked on farms and sprouted thousands of seeds, I can tell you that at no point can you say "the only thing you will find in the soil is soil." And I assume you came to that mistaken conclusion because you haven't farmed, but you have read about farming, perhaps even at length, in Jewish literature. Which brings me back to the original point of this post.

    Yes, the shell of the seed breaks down and rots, but there is a little core inside the seed which never breaks down. That core spark become nourished and strengthened through the shell breaking down, and that core becomes the new plant. In the analogue, that core would be called the "nefesh elokis." The shell would be the nefesh ha'behamis/yetzer hora/sitra achra/klipos. It is my understanding (and I'm very open to being corrected if I'm wrong) that being botul means nullifying your non-G-dly self to your G-dly self, the chelek eloka mima'al which is within every yid. That core spark never disappears, and in fact, the whole point is that it should remain strong and grow in strength. It is the same with a seed... the core never breaks down becomes part of the soil, chas v'shalom, but rather stays strong and only gets stronger. If it was meant to completely cease existing, I believe that's called klos ha'nefesh, which is something that is generally counter-productive to being sent into this world.

  10. It's now a couple of years since I wrote this post, and looking at my responses from that time I want to apologize for being so headstrong and condescending. That was definitely not in the spirit of the sicha.