Some people like the selfless love displayed by the title character in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree; I prefer to see the book as a cautionary tale about dysfunctional relationships. Briefly, throughout a man’s life, a tree does its (her) very best to provide him with whatever he asks for. SPOILER: Finally there is nothing left of the tree but a dead stump, which the tree gladly offers as a place for the man to sit when he returns to her.
Is this love noble or twisted? I’ve finally decided that Shel Silverstein is brilliant because both answers work. Those who want to see the beauty of motherly love can find evidence to support their feelings in the text. Those who think mothers deserve to live their own lives and not only through others can also point to details in the story. The ambiguity of the final meeting between the tree and man make this possible. The book is like all good poetry (I guess—I’m not good at understanding most poetry) and also like Torah. Enough is left unsaid that the same set of verses can be interpreted in two diametrically opposite ways. (That’s why we need Rashi.)
As a librarian in Jewish schools I’ve been able to push my point of view of The Giving Tree to the teachers who want to spend their Tu B’Shvat unit praising the actions of the tree. I am happy to say that they have changed their teaching a bit. They now ask if perhaps the boy isn’t being a little bit selfish in always taking and taking until the tree is destroyed. And they talk about ecology and how we must be guardians of nature: If we have dominion over nature, then we must be responsible owners.
Happy Tu B’Shvat.