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Parashat Beshalach

01/28/2021 02:07:14 PM


Rabbi Hearshen

A number of years back a group of my father’s university students wanted to honor and thank him.  They looked and searched for a special gift and couldn’t not find anything that had meaning. My father taught at a Catholic university in the metropolitan Detroit area. The vast majority of his students had very little knowledge of Jewish people or of Judaism. And yet one day an envelope arrived in the mail with my father’s name on it. Inside the envelope was a certificate that 10 trees had been planted in Israel for him. He was so touched and so moved. What’s amazing is that we appreciate a gift like a tree being planted in our honor in a place we do not live. We appreciate that this gift is something that helps not only our environment, but also our homeland. 

When I was in Sunday School, every year without fail, the teachers would read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to us at this time of the year. When I was a bit older and was reading that book to my students I had a realization… this is not the right book to celebrate trees with. It was not the message we needed to be sending and it continues to be a misguided message. Certainly, the book contains a great story of friendship and giving of oneself. But it does not contain a message of love for trees. At the end of the book, the tree is reduced to a stump that’s there for the old man to sit on. The tree had provided him with so much and he took and took, but in that taking he depleted the tree down to nothingness. In my search for a better story to tell to my students, I came across another book that was written for children: The Lorax, by Dr Seuss. The Lorax is a book about the environment and our role that we play in it.  The reality is that it’s a dark book and leaves us feeling hopeless. But the book is actually all about hope. It describes the mass destruction of natural resources and the degradation of our environment. At the end, the deeper meaning of the book is revealed: 

And all that the Lorax left here in this mess was a small pike of rocks, with the one word..."UNLESS."

Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn't guess. That was long, long ago. But each day since that day I've sat here and worried and worried away. Through the years, while my buildings have fallen apart, I've worried about it with all of my heart. " But now," says the Once-ler, "Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” 


The book tells us our role and our responsibility and that we have to care. The truth is that our world will never improve unless we care to make it better.  In my office, I have a stone with the word “unless” written on it to remind me of this responsibility.  This is a very Jewish viewpoint. In the midrashic work: Kohelet Rabah the rabbis explained the following verse for us: “Consider the work of God; for who can make that straight that which has been made crooked.” (Kohelet 7:13). Here is how they explain that verse: “When the Holy One blessed be He created the first man, He took him and led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘Behold My works, how beautiful and wonderful they are.  All that I have created, for your sake have I created them. Be careful not to corrupt or destroy My world; for if you destroy it there is no one to repair it after you.” (Kohelet Rabah 7:13). This midrash makes clear that we have a responsibility to be good custodians of the earth. It also goes a step further in telling us that should the world be damaged, there could be a point at which no hope would exist for it to be repaired.  

While I greatly love the midrash that I just spoke about, I also think it leaves out the real chance we always have to make changes and to make things better. To claim that something is possibly completely irreparable is quite a leap and one that I think allows us to throw our hands up and give up on everything. The message behind The Lorax tempers the midrash. It tells us that if we are not careful enough, we could destroy the earth unless we begin to care more about the earth that is our home. There is always that chance to reduce, reuse and recycle. There is always that opportunity to carpool rather than drive alone and there are always choices we can make that can help our world become the palace that God intended it to be from the beginning.   

Wed, March 3 2021 19 Adar 5781