Ten years ago I was asked by the editor of the journal Conservative Judaism to write about my favorite book from my childhood. There was no question I would write about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. In honor of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat — the birthday of the trees — I republish those words on this blog.
“And then the tree was happy… But not really.” Ever since I made the decision to become a rabbi several years ago, I have had a recurring vision of my future rabbinate. In this vision, I am sitting in a nursery school classroom at the synagogue reading The Giving Tree, my favorite children’s book, to the class. It is a tender story with many lessons to give about a young boy’s relationship with a tree. Through the years I have discovered many of the metaphors that abound throughout this parable – metaphors about nature, parents, and God.
The tree has a simple goal, and that is to make the little boy happy. When he asks the tree for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches as lumber. He keeps asking and she keeps giving, until all that is left of the tree is a stump when the young boy returns as an old man. And he sits on it.
This is a wonderful story for teachers to use when discussing the law of bal tash’chit – the Torah’s ban on wanton destruction of nature. Our role as God’s children is to repair the world (l’taken olam b’malkhut shaddai) and we must be careful not to exploit such precious gifts as trees, and nature’s other resources.
It is telling that as the boy matures into an old man, Silverstein continues to refer to him as the “boy.” This shows that the tree continued to give even as the boy grew, just as this wonderful book continues to give even as the audience of young boys and young girls gets older. People of all ages will appreciate the feelings of both joy and tears that this book elicits. This is why I no longer only envision myself as a rabbi sharing The Giving Tree with nursery school children, but with “children” of all ages as well. Each time I read this story, I am taken away and then I am happy… But not really.
(Originally published in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 53, No. 4, Summer 2001)