I am not a fan of “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, although I used it in my teaching for years around Tu B’Shevat, needing a story that features trees. Every time I taught with the book, it made me uncomfortable. Designated the birthday of the trees, Tu B’Shevat is the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. Starting in ancient times, trees need a “birthday” for purposes of knowing when to offer first fruits, the equivalent of a tax day. Therefore, Tu B’Shevat was solely for trees in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), and without the 16th century Kabbalists of Safed, Israel, the agricultural day would have become even more attenuated as a festival, given how few of us are farmers in Eretz Yisrael. The mystical connections that the Kabbalists drew, as well as later early 20th century religious Zionism and modern environmentalism, transformed the observance of the festival to include a Tu B’Shevat seder, the planting of trees, and the reading of books like “The Giving Tree.”
This book is focused on the relationship between a boy and an apple tree. As the boy grows up, the tree gives him pieces of herself: leaves, apples, branches; and eventually, her trunk, to make a boat. In the end, the tree is only a stump for the boy, now an old man, to sit on, making the tree happy.
My objections to the book are two-fold: First, I don’t think that this type of relationship, in which one person gives away every piece of themselves to make another person happy, is the type of relationship recommended for our children, our family, or friends, or for anyone. We should model healthier relationships that are more loving and balanced, less transactional.
Second, in our time, Tu B’Shevat has become a holiday for considering how we care for the earth. We don’t want our children to approach the resources of our world as something to be completely used up before we are old. We want our children to cultivate their sense of wonder as well as their appreciation of all the mystical connections in our natural world. We also want our children to cultivate their sense of responsibility to this world and sustaining it.
In the hour when the Holy One of blessing created the first human, They took the human and let them pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to them: “See My works, how fine and praiseworthy they are! Now all that I have created, I have created for you. Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to set it right after you.” [Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13]