After a conversation with environmentalist Judith Polich, Rabbi Rami considers what we can learn from the wisdom of trees.
I ran away from home when I was five years old. We lived in a small pink house in Springfield, Massachusetts. The front lawn—more of a miniature golf putting green—was dominated by a large double-trunk oak tree. I don’t know why I ran away from home, but I do remember making a fuss about doing so. My mother encouraged me to leave and seemed genuinely confused when I stopped as I reached the giant oak.
“Well,” she said softly since I was only a few yards from the front door, “why are you stopping?”
I turned to her and said petulantly, “You know I’m not allowed to walk past the tree alone!”
I thought of this story as I read Judith Polich’s wonderful book, Why Can’t We Be More Like Trees?, in preparation for our interview on the Spirituality+Health Podcast. The core idea of the book is that trees, like us, are sentient beings who, unlike us, operate on the principle of cooperation while we operate on the principle of competition. Her hope is that reading Why Can’t We Be More Like Trees? will help us tell more environmentally wise and sound stories about who we are and what we are to do as humans on Earth.
To help this happen, I suggest you read her book along with Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Written, or so I’ve been told, as a satire, The Giving Tree tells the story of a Christ-like tree who gives herself over unto death in service to a boy’s lifelong and ultimately futile pursuit of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is an addiction, and happiness, like any high, is fleeting. Enshrining this addiction in the Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right endowed by our Creator means the very idea of recovery from this addiction is heresy, and even contemplating abandoning happiness for a more worthwhile and attainable goal is blasphemy. But what other goal is there?
Happiness isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Genesis 1 story of the Six Days of Creation. Instead, we find the word tov. Often translated as “good” and misunderstood as “morally good,” tov in Genesis is better understood as “environmentally sound.” Each act of creation fit naturally with what came before and set the stage for what came next. The only exception is us humans. We were an afterthought of God with nothing coming after us. We were charged with managing a world that didn’t need managing. So, we spend millennia looking for something to do. Mostly this has been defiling the Earth and slaughtering one another.
Chapter 2 of Genesis tells a different story and provides humans with the mission of protecting the Earth from which we arose. Sadly, that didn’t stop us from killing one another either, but at least it holds out hope that if we learn to listen to the trees as Judith Polich advises us, we might remember our original obligation to protect the Earth and learn from the trees how to fulfill it. Assuming, of course, that we stop reading The Giving Tree as a manual for living and recognize it as the satire Silverstein intended it to be.
Listen to the podcast episode that inspired this essay here.