A Lorax Tu Bishvat – It Is a Tree of Life
February 2, 2012 at 1:45 pm, by Timna Burston
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change. It’s not!” – The Lorax
I know it may seem strange to New Yorkers, but Tu Bishvat, the annual birthday of the trees is upon us. With the dead, leafless corpses adorning Riverside Park, it is hard to remember why we celebrate this wonderful holiday. However, in my homeland at this time, the almond trees are beginning to bloom, turning into white fluffy clouds and blushing tufts of cotton candy. Spring begins to emerge from the blanket of winter. In Israel, this is a time of rebirth. And of report cards.
Hundreds of years ago, Jews decided to invent a form of Gnostic mysticism known to the world and choice celebs as “Kabbalah.” Without going into too many details now, I can say that one of the contributions of this groups of mystics are some of the traditions of the holiday of Tu Bishvat, which is coming up very soon. They would enjoy the fruit of different trees, and believed these fruits had special mystical powers, which could nourish a person’s soul, as well as his or her body.
In search of some more current material on Tu Bishvat, I realized that one of the most important works of fiction on trees is coming out very soon as a major motion picture – namely, Dr. Seuss’ seminal work, The Lorax. The Lorax mirrors perfectly the story of Tu Bishvat and gives it a relevant, modern twist.
Kabbalah, Maimonides, and Fruit
Normally, I try to avoid mysticism only slightly more than I try to avoid contracting the bubonic plague. I find the idea that certain all-knowing magicians can unlock the secrets of the Universe but are somehow more righteous than all of us lowly humans and can therefore not tell us about it both arrogant and silly. At the same time, I certainly cannot claim that I myself know enough about the secrets of the Universe to give a good overview of Kabbalah, or to spend time disproving their theories. If you are interested in Kabbalah and would like to learn more about it, you are welcome to check out R. Isaac Luria of Safed. Or the Cliff Notes version, tattooed conveniently on Madonna’s body.
Anyway, what is clear is that many of these mystics found themselves in Safed after the expulsion of the Jews of Spain. And that they liked fruit. Specifically, they believed that eating the right kinds of fruits on Tu Bishvat could nourish not only our bodies, but also our spirit with a divine spark.
Spheres of spiritual consciousness and permutations of the names of the divine aside, I do think that they had a point about this: When we nourish our physical selves, we are more ready to focus on philosophical questions. As Maimonides put it, speaking as a doctor and philosopher, “…it is impossible for one to understand sciences and meditate upon them, when one is hungry or sick” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 3:3). Maimonides viewed knowing the Universe, and knowing the divine, as a logical, scientific process, which I can relate to. In any case, these two very different medieval schools of thought come to the conclusion that the physical world and spiritual world are linked and that a person should nourish their body if they intend to nourish their soul.
Jews and the Trees
Jews have always found trees to be significant. To quote the most overused Jewish Proverb about the Torah: “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy.” There, I had to get that out of the way. Anyway, the idea of the tree has been with us all the way since the story of creation: At the heart of the story of humanity is the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which gave us those two household favorites, wisdom and sin.
In The Lorax, a young boy sets off to seek out knowledge about the Universe as it once was. Just like the mystics of Safed, who believe the world was once perfect, and, as hippies like to say, we “have to get back to the garden,” he seeks the knowledge to repair his broken world. He goes to the Once-ler, a person who can reveal the secrets of the Universe for the low, low price of “15 cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great grandfather snail”. Probably much more cost-effective than the Kabbalah Centre. The Once-ler tells him a tale of good and evil, sin and repentance. It is also the story of the mysterious Lorax, who has flown up to the sky and disappeared from the world.
He tells of the wonderful Trufulla Trees, which sustained glorious creatures, such as the Brown Bar-ba-loots who like frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits, and Humming-Fish splashing around, and Swomee-Swans who fly over the ground. But the Once-ler, like man, could not leave well enough be, and decided to profit off the Trufulla Tree. He chops down the tree, and lo and behold, he finds in it a man who is bossy and old. “He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish. And mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy,” we’re told. This man speaks for the trees, and for all the things in ‘em, but the Once-ler keeps choppin’ and wrecking and sinnin’. The Lorax tries to convince the Once-ler to protect his world, but the Once-ler does not listen to a word, until the world is destroyed, “The Lorax said nothing, just gave me a very sad backward glance… and lifted himself by the seat of his pants. And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face, when he hesitated and took leave of this place, through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.”
The story of The Lorax mirrors the Jewish idea that God “speaks for the trees” and for all living things. He charges Adam with protecting these, but mankind is more interested in their own greedy profit than in helping the world. The result is that the perfect world God created is destroyed, and God hides his face from humanity.
But just as the Kabbalists believe, it is possible to get back to the Garden of Eden. In true Kabbalist form, the secret lies in one word, that the Lorax leaves etched in an old stump. This word is, “Unless”. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The Once-ler does not understand the Lorax’ message, but when he meets the young boy, he unlocks the secret–that it is God’s wish that we protect the Earth.
Hey, maybe the Kabbalists had a point.
Tags: bubonic plague, Cliff Notes, Dr. Seuss, environmentalism, Fruit, Gnosticism, Hilkhot De'ot, Isaac Luria, Israel, Kabbalah, Madonna, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, mysticism, New York, Proverbs, rebirth, Riverside Park, Safed, The Lorax, Torah, Tu B'shvat, Tu Bishvat, הלכות דעות, ט"ו בשבט, ישראל, משנה תורה, צפת, קבלה, ר' יצחק לורייא, רמב"ם, תורה