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Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz


One of the benefits of living in the suburbs is the ability to witness the wonders of nature as the leaves turn colors each autumn.  Driving down the Palisades Parkway is like driving through a tunnel of reds and golds. Looking to the mountains, I see the luxurious blanket of  fall colors adorning the horizon.

As I left shul one morning and caught a glimpse of the blazing color glinting in the early morning sun I paused to thank Hashem for the beauty of the natural world around us, and for the opportunity to enjoy this majestic show.  My mother has always loved the fall foliage and maybe I have her to thank for some of my appreciation thereof.

But then I began thinking of something else I had heard about leaves.  I don’t recall which lecturer it was who spoke about the topic but he mentioned something that should give us pause.  When we see the colors in the leaves, it’s not because they are growing and gaining strength.  On the contrary, they’re breaking down and dying!  

Photosynthesis halts as the shorter days no longer provide the necessary sunlight for the process of breaking down carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose.  The green chlorophyll begins to disappear and the colors emerge; not due to beautiful growth, but due to inevitable death.

Now, this sounds depressing, but when you know how to look at it, it really isn’t.  We can learn a valuable lesson from the leaves and when we do, we will be able to enjoy the beauty that much more.

R’ Avigdor Miller z”l famously spoke about the brilliant color in an orange which makes us want to eat it.  “But,” he says, “look inside, and it’s white.  Why?  Because the Master of the World won’t waste color where it won’t be seen and is unnecessary.”  If that’s so, the message of the autumn leaves must be very important to be put all over the world where the dramatic color it provides is admired by millions.  So, what is the message?

It’s interesting to note that many of the fruits and vegetables associated with autumn share those orange, gold, and deep purple colors which make the leaves so striking.  Squashes, pumpkins and gourds make us think of fall, giving thanks, and the approaching cooler weather. Autumn is the time of harvest, when we gather in the fruits of our labors all summer and enjoy what we’ve prepared as we approach the long winter ahead.

That’s exactly what the leaves are doing, utilizing whatever they’ve created while the long sunny days made it possible for them to be productive, and waiting for the opportunity once again to begin growing leaves and starting the cycle of being productive again.

Sukkos comes at this time of the year and we focus on our joy.  But if we think about it, all the produce that was growing until now is picked – plucked from its source of life – and now sits, dead, in our storerooms and pantries.  Should we truly rejoice over these once-thriving life forms which no longer have the chance to grow?

Of course, the question is preposterous, since the whole purpose of planting food is to have it grow and provide sustenance for us once it is harvested.  Even animals, which are raised for food, fulfill their purpose for being only when they are turned into nutritious victuals that provide a source of life for growing boys and girls.  The joy we experience at the ingathering comes not from the death of the plant or animal, but from the realization that we have achieved what we set out to do.

When we see the leaves changing colors, it is a sign that their work is complete.  They have diligently turned an unbreathable gas, carbon dioxide, into fresh oxygen for humankind and animals alike.  They have stored up enough food for their respective trees to provide sustenance through the winter ahead.  At this time, they have reason to celebrate their success with a show of stunning color.  But there’s more. 

If we reflect on what happens to the leaves, we see a parallel in mankind.  The Torah commands us, “Mipnei saivah takum,” you shall rise in the presence of an old person, “V’hadarta p’nei zakein,” and you shall honor the presence of an elder.  The Torah praises old age and calls it worthy of respect and honor.  While the non-Torah world praises youth and beauty, we see the wisdom of life experience as a glowing crown upon those who have trod upon this earth for seventy years or more.

This is similar to the leaves which, as they approach the end of their lives, exhibit a fiery presence which makes us take note.  So many of our greatest people became more well-known as they approached the end of their lives.  These Gedolim flourish as they approach their final years, much as the leaves do.  So, what is the lesson that is so important to all of us?

I would like to suggest that the common thread between the leaves, the harvested produce, and the elders, is a reduced connection to the earthly plane.  As the photosynthesis ceases, the green chlorophyll ebbs away to reveal the beautiful hues that were really there the whole time.  The natural process of work production was hiding the inherent beauty of the leaf.

So too, the day-to-day matters of living tend to mask the greatness inside each of us.  Especially for us in America, the concept of everything holy being hidden by “the green” is quite understandable.  However, as we age, we tend to become more detached from running after the dollar, less likely to chase excitement and avenues of pleasure or entertainment.  We begin to introspect and find the beauty within ourselves, and seek the connection to a higher power.  That wisdom, the life-experience which helps us recognize what’s truly important and valuable, is what Judaism finds so praiseworthy.

When we see an elder, we know they have spent their lives preparing for the winter ahead, when they will no longer be able to gather mitzvos and turn moments of life into fuel for Olam Haba.  The more they have done their job, the more glorious the showing.  We are meant to reflect on this all our years, and Hashem gives us a stark reminder every autumn.

The Mabul began and ended in Cheshvan, which is usually the peak month for fall foliage color in much of the world.  Not coincidentally, one of the promises Hashem made after the flood was that the seasons would never be suspended.  Rather, we would always see the cycle of birth, prodigious growth, glorious ending, and the deathly quiet of winter.

This is to remind us why we are here, and how we can turn the days of our life into sustenance for our future life in Olam Haba; the life which is our primary existence, but for which one must prepare now.  Each year, the autumn leaves flash and gleam this message to us as they repose in splendid color, catching our eyes, and hopefully, our thoughts as well.

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