There are a few books on my shelf to which I continually turn. They do not only take up space in my library; they have carved a niche in my life and shape the way in which I see the world. They have also become literary staples in my household. The edges of their pages hold not only the unique marks of my fingerprints; they serve as a conduit between my hands and those of my children.
Of all the children’s books that take prominence in creating my – and my children’s – worldview, The Giving Tree is a first among equals. For those of you who haven’t yet read it, the story is about the relationship of a boy and a tree, as the boy grows into an old man. At each stage of the boy’s life, the tree gives to the boy whatever it can, until they share a last moment – an old man resting as he sits on a tree stump.
Lying in bed, underneath the mass of four small, sprawled out bodies, I flip through the pages, holding back the tear that always wants to fall by the end of the story. Interrupted at each stage of the boy’s life, I cannot get through any moment of arboreal happiness without a question or a comment. It’s not that my children do not understand the story. It’s that they don’t understand how a person could take so much without realizing what the tree is giving away.
Even before I say for the last time, “And the tree was happy,” they grab the book from my hands and flip to “Once there was a tree,” signaling that it’s time to start the book anew. That one more read won’t hurt their night’s sleep. That one more read may give them the pleasure of a few more minutes spending time with me.
The story itself provokes in me immense anger or immense love, oftentimes both. When read as a parent looking at the choices of a son, I feel disappointment and frustration at the boy’s selfishness. How he grew into a man without learning any of the lessons that the tree could have taught him. How he took everything and ended up with nothing – just an old stump on which to sit and rest. When read as a parent looking at the choices of the tree, I also feel disappointment. How could the tree keep enabling the boy? Why won’t the tree stop giving in to his desires? Teach him not to see others as a means to his own ends before it’s too late.
But this sentiment is not coupled only with frustration. It is mixed with the recognition of how love is both self-sacrificial yet satisfying in the same exact moment. Even when the tree is not really happy, it can do no other but give to the boy it loves. Whether right or wrong, I understand the tree.
There is another book that I read each year – sometimes alone, sometimes with my children – that is referred to as a tree of life for those who grasp it tight, and those who draw near to it are happy. This book also ends with tears, but not those of its readers. When we read the end of the Torah in our synagogues, it is accompanied with great fanfare and rejoicing. Yet, the Talmud records that when Moses wrote the last sentences of the Torah, God dictated the words – including mention of Moses’ death – while he dutifully penned what God said with tears in his eyes.
I oftentimes think about the juxtaposition between Moses’ tears and our celebration when reading the final verses of the Torah. I also think about how we quickly begin the Torah anew, like we can’t let the story end. As if one more read may give us the pleasure of spending time with the Tree of Life.
Moses learned the lesson of what it means to be self-sacrificial yet satisfied in the exact same moment. He understood that he could do no other but pen God’s words. But this choice was not out of fear or exasperation. His choice was made from love. His greatness was not simply in his ability to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. What undergirded his actions was his love for God and the people of Israel. Even when angry or frustrated, he could do no other but give. Even at the end of his story, he laid his hands upon Joshua, giving his protégé everything he had left, for the sake of the people.
If we are not careful, our celebration upon finishing our public reading of the Torah on Simchat Torah may cause us to miss this lesson. It may cause us to be like the boy in The Giving Tree, seeing only what we accomplish in finishing this divine story and not what we are leaving behind. If we focus only on ourselves, we may lose sight of how much Moses gave – how much each generation gave to its children – in passing down this book.
But, unlike the boy in the story who always leaves immediately after getting what he wants, we do not close the Torah scroll and go away until we need something else. We return to the beginning to start the story all over again. Our desire to start anew is a desire to hold it tight, to draw near to its lessons and uphold its values. With our return to the beginning, we do not miss what it means to give. That spending time and attention is not self-sacrificial but fulfilling.
And for that we are happy.