I have never been a fan of banning books. I love books, and I’m even glad for the opportunity to read a book that ultimately, I don’t even like. It hones my analysis, sharpens my knowledge of what I like and what I don’t like.
But, I never read “The Giving Tree” to my kids. Ever. Never gave it as a gift, and gave away copies we got as gifts. Basically banned it from the house. If one can be said to “hate” a book, that’s one of them. Now, I like a lot of Shel Silverstein, so it’s not him. It’s just this book.
The tree gives and gives and gives. And make no mistake, the tree is female and the recipient is clearly male; the female exhausts herself giving of herself until there’s nothing left but a stump, and she gets nothing in return. It’s about the worst model I could imagine for my daughters and son.
This week’s parasha, Kedoshim, is pretty much the opposite of “The Giving Tree.” In Kedoshim, we read, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be set aside for as holy before Adonai, and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit, that its yield to you may be increased: I am Adonai your God “ (Lev 19:23-25)
The Hebrew actually says, “you shall leave the foreskin of that fruit uncircumcised”, i.e. blocked from use. We see that phrase in other places – we are told that Moses had “uncircumcised lips”, he couldn’t speak freely. We read about those with “uncircumcised hearts” as unfeeling. Ramban (13th c Spain) brings in other examples: someone who is circumcised of spirit is close-minded (Ezekiel), and one whose ears are circumcised can’t hear (Jeremiah) . Uncircumcised is potential unfulfilled, fruitfulness closed off, fertility blocked, progress clogged, humanity thwarted.
The tree needs to grow strong and sustainable before we can begin deriving benefit from it. We just can’t take and take and take from the tree. It’s not good for the land, for the tree, and not good for us, “that its yield to you may be increased.” Rashi (11th c France) says the effect of observing this commandment is that the tree’s yield will be increased,it’s in our best interest to keep the tree giving forth fruit. Rashi also says this practice keeps us from being bitter about caring for something without getting anything in return.
This text teaches us sustainability. The “Giving Tree” tree ends up a stump. The Leviticus tree ends up fruitful and alive, giving and receiving nourishment for generations to come. Sorry, Shel, but that’s a better model.a