Sweetening the Water
“I want to be a tree” my mom told me over coffee on the balcony during a particular visit home. I looked at her strangely, then allowed my gaze to wander over to the mountain foothills of the Angeles National Forest, shrouded by the early spring morning fog, and let the silence hang in the air as I tried to pick out details in the distance, but her voice brought me back. “When I die, I want to be a tree. They do that now, you know? You can be laid in the ground with a seed and then over time you become a tree.” I had a terrible image of my mother’s skeleton, rising from the ground inextricably entwined in solid limbs and branches, terrifying the neighbors like some ghoulish Halloween decoration left on permanent display. The insensitive and unnecessary response was “Mom, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal. They have laws about this sort of thing to keep your body from rising out of the earth and terrifying small children.” She smiled patiently and laughed, in her special way, and said “well anyway, I’d like to be a tree.”
Among her favourite books to read to us at bedtime was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It was a theatrical affair, as Mom was completely and utterly incapable of completing this book without crying, and would have to stop and collect herself a few times before reaching the end, a sobbing mess. For the uninitiated, this children’s book is the story of the lifelong relationship between a boy and a tree. Although the boy physically grows up throughout the narrative, and takes on the responsibilities of adulthood, he remains a taker throughout his life, up to the very end. The tree delights in the boy and grants his every request: her apples, her leaves, her branches, her entire body, and finally all that remains of her is a stump, the perfect height for an old man to sit and rest. The tree never changes her nature, and the boy never gives anything of himself as he takes advantage of her generosity and consumes her entirely.
It’s funny, but only now, upon years of reflection, do I see my mom as that tree. Any parent might hope to be seen in that way, I suppose. There is a desire to give and give, to exhaust your resources and divide yourself beyond all reasonable division in order to serve your children. But as fondly as I recall our storytime, I never wanted to be the little boy. I did not want to be the selfish taker, the one who never gives back, and never seems to appreciate the extent to which his support system will give of herself to meet his needs. My mother gave all of herself. All of her time, working as an attorney by day and then teaching Hebrew school and cooking classes and volunteering, cooking Friday night meals for the synagogue and ferrying us about. She gave her love beyond measure, even taking on a foster child from an abusive drug-addled home once we children had left the nest.
So we have almost arrived at Tu b’Shevat, a celebration of trees and all they offer, and it ties in quite perfectly with our parashah, B’shallach. This week we have the theme of water as an obstruction and a savior, as a necessity of life and a taker of it. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, leads the women in song to God, specifying the drowning of the Egyptian armies as a praiseworthy act of God. And just following this event, on their first stop in Marah, the Israelites find the only available water to also be marah, bitter. These people, just recently saved through miracles of God, are quick to turn on Moses, demanding something suitable to drink. It is when Moses cries out to God on their behalf that his attention is directed to a tree which, when cast into the waters, turns them sweet.
I want you to sit with this bit for a moment.
What was the nature of this tree that was capable of turning bitter water sweet? What specific quality was this tree able to impart, to lend to the waters in order to transform them?
The most bitter things in life don’t always come at the most opportune times. There is much in our day-to-day which leaves a bad taste in our mouths:
An unpleasant but necessary conversation with a colleague.
An argument with a family member or a friend.
A particular failure or setback that hits just the right nerve.
A death, a loss so inexplicable that it threatens to embitter us to our very core.
It is so very easy to complain about the bitterness, to cry out against the unfairness of it, to feel personally attacked, or even helpless. To become the bitterness.
But to search only for the sweetness, to seek the giving tree and strip her of her proffered fruit – this is also not the answer. A tree does not grow in a vacuum; it must be nourished and replenished and well-tended if we expect it to keep the bitterness at bay. This Shabbat, and on Tu B’shevat, we don’t merely thank God for these blessings, but we think about how we can sustain and perpetuate the cycle positively.
How we can sustainably give and sustainably take, making our lives, and the lives of those around us, sweet and nourishing?
How can we ensure that the next generation will not become embittered by our failures?
Do we become takers? Do we become givers? Do we tap into the nature of both and appreciate a beauty which is nearly impossible to adequately express?
My mom may not be posthumously terrifying small children in the garden, but she did manage to plant a number of seeds which flourish, as she best expressed in an oft-recited poem by Joyce Kilmer:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.