I am a tree. My roots are strong as I try to center myself in this world with a sturdy trunk, both emotionally and physically. My limbs hold the burdens we are afflicted with and joy experienced, yet my branches reach far, for I am nourished by my thirst for life and learning, the love and wisdom of others. I will blossom as I have a beautiful family and am part of many communities who appreciate me, yet help guide me.
As seasons change, so does this tree. I fail and I succeed, I contemplate, and I wonder, I learn, and I teach. I will be supportive, passionate and courageous for those who need me, providing sustenance and performing good deeds. This metaphorical tree will work in partnership with real trees as I breathe in the oxygen that they give me, and I will exhale the carbon dioxide it needs from me.
There is no finality with the death of a tree. The imagery of a downed tree fills me with curiosity, and I want to count the rings whose patterns are as unique as our fingerprints. Revealed will be the experiences it endured – how long it lived and when there was a growth spurt, if it suffered from a drought or too much rain, if there are signs of disease or other anomalies, perhaps a lightning strike. I am fascinated by twisted and decaying limbs and trunks that became food to insects and home to wildlife, a place to sit or run across and balance upon.
My father, a Holocaust survivor, lived in a small town in Holland that overlapped the German border. The streets were lined with linden trees until the Germans came in and chopped them down. I believe that the death of those trees led to my parents planting a little forest at our home. All different types, including a pear and walnut tree. It was my dream to be married in their yard and I was – under the weeping willow. An inspirational story of determination and perseverance comes from a book “The Children’s Tree of Terezin.” It’s about a heroic teacher and a group of children who were all imprisoned at Terezin, a concentration camp during the Holocaust, in which they planted a maple tree sapling. The legacy of these courageous souls has spread throughout the world, as cuttings from this very tree led to the growing of new trees, whose cuttings are still being circulated, to perpetuate their memory and recall their experience.
Shel Silverstein’s popular book, “The Giving Tree,” evokes an overwhelming amount of emotion in me. Silverstein initially never wanted to do children’s books, so I figured that this piece was meant to wake adults up so we can see the errors of our ways and serve as examples for children. Framing a life plan for us that includes mitzvot, the theme of “don’t be a selfish jerk and be sure to give back” is harshly expressed throughout the book’s pages. I can sit here racking my brain as to what things are more versatile than a tree, but it doesn’t matter because the answer is clear. Trees are a gift from God. And as God is the owner of this world and we are merely renters, all we have to do is take care of our trees. God tells Adam that everything He created was for us and then proceeds to warn him to be careful not to destroy His world.
The Bible is filled with the mention of trees. In Genesis 1:11-12, trees are created before anything else that benefits from them because no living thing would be able to exist. In the book of Isaiah, Isaiah was representative of a landscape professional, going into depth about which type of trees will be planted and where. I was witness to this two summers ago when I attended a phenomenal Jewish National Fund educators conference in Israel. I learned about species being brought into Israel for specific purposes, like withstanding desert conditions. Also, why trees and other foliage were placed in precise locations, such as at water banks.
This month is Tu B’Shevat. And as trees are thoroughly expressed in Jewish thought, connecting our relationship with the natural environment, I encourage you to reflect and think about what kind of tree you are and what kind of tree you want to be. Chag Sameach!
Debbie Intravaia is education director of Congregation Beth El in Sheboygan and religious schoolteacher at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, Glendale.