By Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld
I would like to discuss some Pesukim from this week’s Parsha by way of a detour through the concept of upsherin. When my son’s upsherin was approaching, I found myself wondering, why on earth do we do this? It’s a strange thing to let little boys’ hair grow out, make them look like girls, and then thrust scissors into their crying faces on their 3rd birthdays. Yet from speaking to people and seeing the genre of ספרים that mentioned upsherin, I got the sense that this was a very deep and holy practice. So, what is it all about?
Nearly everywhere you look regarding upsherin, you will see the idea that we are like trees, and just like each tree has a mitzvah of ערלה, that for the first 3 years you cant take a fruit, so too we don’t cut our children’s hair for the first 3 years, and only in the 4th year do we cut it. This concept comes from the Pasuk at the end of פרשת שופטים that says:
כִּֽי-תָצ֣וּר אֶל-עִיר֩ יָמִ֨ים רַבִּ֜ים לְֽהִלָּחֵ֧ם עָלֶ֣יהָ לְתָפְשָׂ֗הּ לֹֽא-תַשְׁחִ֤ית אֶת-עֵצָהּ֙ לִנְדֹּ֤חַ עָלָיו֙ גַּרְזֶ֔ן כִּ֚י מִמֶּ֣נּוּ תֹאכֵ֔ל וְאֹת֖וֹ לֹ֣א תִכְרֹ֑ת כִּ֤י הָֽאָדָם֙ עֵ֣ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לָבֹ֥א מִפָּנֶ֖יךָ בַּמָּצֽוֹר:
Literally this translates as a rhetorical question. “when you are laying siege to a city, to not destroy its trees by swinging an ax upon it, since you eat from those trees and you should not cut them down. for is a tree like a man? That he can surrender to you when you lay siege?” obviously a tree is not a man, so don’t chop him down for your own benefit.
But it is well known that Chazal understood this פסוק to have a literal interpretation as well, that man is in fact comparable to a tree. In which case the question begs, in what way are we really like trees? And if we are going with the comparison between us and trees, then let’s go all the way. We should each have to grow our hair out every 7th year like שמיטה, and ערלה is only a חיוב in ארץ ישראל so no more upsherins outside of Israel. Also, ערלה has a קדושה so maybe the freshly cut hair should be קדוש. And why specifically hair? Maybe we shouldn’t cut the child’s nails for 3 years? The comparison seems to be very loose at best.
I think if we analyze these Pesukim from פרשת שופטים, the Torah is telling us exactly in what way we are like trees, and specifically to which types of trees we are similar.
If you look at the surrounding Pesukim, the Torah says that only a tree which you know is not an עץ מאכל, a fruit bearing tree, that tree you can destroy and cut down and use to build the tower for your siege. So, it seems, that the Torah only compares people to fruit trees, not to barren trees. There is something special about a fruit tree that we can’t just destroy it.
The words that the Torah chooses to use, תשחית and עץ מאכל seem like unassuming words that would be somewhat commonly used, but in fact, throughout the entire Torah they each appear only in פרשת שופטים and in one other place, in our פרשה of פרשת קדושים:
וְכִי-תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל-הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל-עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עָרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת-פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל
לֹ֣א תַקִּ֔פוּ פְּאַ֖ת רֹאשְׁכֶ֑ם וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁחִ֔ית אֵ֖ת פְּאַ֥ת זְקָנֶֽךָ:
And these two Pesukim just so happen to be right next to each other, and just so happen to address the two focal points of every upsherin, the haircut, and the mitzvah of peyos that this little boy can now perform. But what is the meaning of all this?
I think we the message is that we are each an עץ מאכל with nearly limitless potential just like a fruit tree has practically limitless potential. Next time you are eating an apple, pick up one of those weeny seeds, and try to wrap your head around the fact that in this seed there is the potential to make a tree which will make thousand of fruits over its life which will all have seeds inside of them. And each seed can offshoot and create an entire orchard by itself if its power is properly harnessed.
Each human being has the same potential. Both physically in our ability to procreate, but also conceptually in the fact that we are each able to form ideas and then put them into action. And each of those ideas will affect somebody who will, in turn, spread their own ideas to other who will create even more ideas and more affects upon the world in which we live.
Therefore, when a baby boy is born, we are instructed to “cover” (this is the literal translation of וערלתם) that potential for the first three years and not indulge in it. We should look at this child and see endless potential coming out of their heads, represented by the mini manes that they sport on the small heads. They may seem small, but just like that seed, there is nearly limitless power that simply needs to be harnessed correctly.
A few Pesukim later we are also told not to destroy the corners of our beards. We are meant to have peyos extending from the corners of our heads and beards.
The upsherin ties these together. Hair represents potential (that is why hair typically grows on parts of the body that have the potential to affect the world around it. Arms can perform actions, legs can transport us, the reproductive organs can procreate, the mouth can speak, and the head obviously holds the brain which is our most powerful tool of all), and the initial status of every Jewish child is meant to be limitless potential, we leave the hair untouched with no corners or boundaries. It may look wild, but that is what raw potential looks like. And in essence that is the potential we each have.
However, everything needs definition, otherwise it would remain a wild non structured entity that lacks form. No restriction is worse than too much restriction, since without restriction or boundary no one would be confident in the world around them. As an easy example, driving a car has incredible potential, but imagine a world where there was no definitions of rules or restrictions on the road. It would be a terrifying place.
Therefore, we cut the hair at three years old, to give the structure needed. But the idea is that we are dealing with something that is limitless, which we need to superimpose restriction onto.
This is also adds up with why we introduce ציצית at the same time, which is also a commandment regarding corners of our garments that have attached strings which are meant to remind us of Infinity.
But the main thing to remember is that we are compared to trees, and that we are never to cut down an עץ מאכל, never to stop our children from being limitless.
And that’s why at the end of the פרשה of ערלה it says בַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַחֲמִישִׁ֗ת תֹּֽאכְלוּ֙ אֶת-פִּרְי֔וֹ לְהוֹסִ֥יף לָכֶ֖ם תְּבוּאָת֑וֹ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם: after you leave the tree limitless for 3 years and then enjoy the fruits of the 4th year, what will happen in the 5th year is that you will have a הוספה, and addition and multiplication on top of what you had before. The idea is that there should always be more and more, we are dealing with something that is at its core limitless.
May we all be zoche to see out limitless potential, and to have the ability to properly restrict and harness that potential.