ט׳ בשבט ה׳תשע״ד (January 10, 2014)
One of the most memorable of children’s books is called The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.
(Yes, the one with the scary photo of the author on the back.)
The short story it contains lingers in your memory for months and years after reading it, because even though it is just a simple story, it has a powerful meaning. It you have never read it, it takes less than five minutes, and is well worth it (…or watch animated movie below).
The story is about a tree, and a young boy who plays with the tree. The tree wants to make the little boy happy by giving, and the little boy loves the tree and is happy taking. As the book progresses however, the boy takes more than just shade, fruit and friendship; he takes the branches to build a house, and then the trunk to build a boat. The tree is still happy giving and only wishes for a little love in return, but the boy has now grown into a man with no time for a tree. The story ends with an old man, and a tree stump. The tree has given all it can … all that is left is a stump to sit on, which is really all the old man now wants. The tree is happy.
The difficulty with the story is that we are left unsure as to how to feel? Is this a story of love or of pain? Is it a story of giving or of sacrifice? Was the boy right to take what he did, or was he cruel? Does the tree symbolise a loving parent, constantly giving until there is nothing left to give, and in return looking only for a child’s love? Everyone interprets the book differently, (and none of the kids like the back cover!) but for many readers this is a parable for those who only take and take, without showing any gratitude or appreciation.
In the Torah reading this week, and over the next few weeks, we see the Jewish people behaving in a manner that should make us uncomfortable. As they travel through the desert, sustained by G-d’s love and miracles, all they seem to do is take and take, and then complain. They complain so much that G-d calls them a “stiff-necked people.” They complain so much that Moses & Aaron give up on them, and plead with G-d for help in their leadership. Never do we see them showing any signs of gratitude. It is as if they felt everything they received was owed to them, and when times are tough they cry out: Is Hashem with us or not?
The result of this behaviour is that G-d punishes them with an attack by a violent enemy, the tribe of Amalek, in a place called Rephidim. The midrash explains what happened as follows: This can be compared to a man who mounted his son on his shoulder and set out on the road. Whenever his son saw something, he would say, “Father, take that thing and give it to me,” and he [the father] would give it to him. Eventually they met a man, and the son said to him, “Have you seen my father anywhere?” So his father said to him, “You don’t know where I am?” He threw him down, and a dog came and bit him (Tanchuma, Yitro 3).
The lesson is very clear. We need to be aware of the source of our blessings, and to be grateful for them. If we have our health, our vision, our hearing, our mobility, a family, a home, shelter from the cold and three meals a day – we are luckier than a large percentage of the world’s population. The fact that we can walk in the streets safely, that we have phones, internet access, libraries and cars, puts us way up with the “have’s” of society. In Jewish terms we have shuls, schools, kosher food, mikvahs, vibrant communities, the freedom to be proudly Jewish in free and democratic societies, and the freedom to travel to or live in Eretz Yisrael, itself free and democratic. All of that puts us way above what many Jewish communities had throughout the entire gamut of Jewish history.
So maybe this Shabbat is about saying thank you.
When Moses told the Jews that the manna would only fall six days a week, but not on Shabbat, there were some trouble makers who secretly placed manna outdoors late on Friday night, hoping Moses would be proven wrong on Shabbat morning. Our tradition has it that the manna was eaten by the birds early on Shabbat and the plan failed. As a gesture of thanks, this week when we read about the manna, we make sure to feed the birds, (before Shabbat). We need to inculcate in ourselves and our children the importance of showing our thanks, even to a bird or animal, and of course to humans, acquaintances, friends and family.
The power of appreciation is immense.
Yosef Cabiliv was a reserve soldier in the IDF in the 70’s, and was patrolling the Golan Heights when his jeep hit an old Syrian land mine. Yosef’s legs were so severely crushed that the doctors had no choice but to amputate them. Like many other injured war vets he suffered terrible depression from his disability, and nothing could lift his spirits.
In the summer of 1976 he was taken on a sponsored tour of the United States with a large group of disabled veterans. Whilst in New York the group paid a visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l.
The Rebbe met the group, spoke to each one and then addressed the group in a very positive way, lauding their sacrifice, and talking about the unique potential each one had, despite their injuries. As they left, he gave each disabled soldier a dollar bill to give to charity and said a few word to each one. Said Yosef: When my turn came … he looked deeply into my eyes, took my hand between his own, pressed it firmly, and said only two words: “Thank you.” I later learned that he had said something different to each one of us. To me he said “Thank you” – somehow sensing that that was exactly what I needed to hear. With those two words, he erased all the bitterness and despair that had accumulated in my heart. I carried the Rebbe’s “Thank you” back to Israel, and I carry it with me to this very day.
Sometimes all the speeches and discussions in the world are not what is needed. Sometimes the two most powerful words, after “I’m Sorry,” are “Thank You.” Let’s take a moment this week to think about those who do or have done kindnesses for us in the past, and simply thank them for what they have done. Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Zalman Lent