One year ago today, I stood on this pulpit and spoke with you about the children’s poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, that classic piece of poetry that explores the profound meaning found in the liminal space between asphalt and concrete.
We discussed the metaphor implicit within Shel Silverstein’s writing, how the messiness of that place where the sidewalk ends is the reality of all our lives, the meaning implicit in this holiday of the New Year. How each and every year we live our lives in the turbulent space where the sidewalk ends, where the smoke blows black and asphalt flowers fill pits and cracks, and that our purpose on this earth is to find a way to walk forward in spite of life’s messiness.
101 days after I spoke these words my mom died. She died a painful, agonizing death, at the young age of fifty six years, less than six months after she was first diagnosed with a cancer so rare that it had no prognosis other than death.
She died from a cancer that she had been told had not metastasized, only because the doctor who diagnosed her never actually looked at her CT scans. She died from a cancer that until 4 days before she passed she had been told she was beating.
My family and I have lived through dark, dark days since December 21 of last year, days on which it felt like the world may stop spinning entirely. Days on which each of us blamed ourselves for the death of our family’s rock, days on which it seemed as if this pain will never be soothed.
Such was my 5773.
And I know that I am not alone. I have walked with so many of you these past 12 months down life’s most atrocious paths, bearing witness to death and disease, hurt and havoc, loss and longing. We have sat together, cried together, talked together, trying to find comfort during the uncomfortable, trying to find meaning during the meaningless.
We are all survivors – the ones who have lived on past the more audacious pits and jagged edges of life’s messy contours. Sooner or later, tragedy and terror catch up with each of us. We do not choose when. We cannot choose how. There are lucky ones who live full lives unscathed, but they have merely dodged the bullets of a life more mired by chance than any of us is comfortable admitting.
So many of us have been hurt this past year by the messy space where the sidewalk ends, by the cracks and pits and dandelions that fill the void.
Leading up to this Rosh Hashanah, I have felt so in need of understanding my own advice, that either these holidays become a time of marking our inability to inoculate ourselves from our own humanity, a time when we become petrified by the roughness of this place where the sidewalk ends – or that, instead, we use this moment as inspiration to focus our attention on that over which we do have control. I have so wanted to heed the very Torah which I preached, from this same space on earth, back in what feels like a lifetime ago.
But I’ve struggled. It was easy to preach that the sidewalk ends and life is messy. It was much harder to accept that fact when I found myself moving forward on a road of broken asphalt. And I know how hard it has been for many of you.
So in the messy dissonance of feared-hypocrisy, I’ve searched. I’ve mined our tradition for comfort over the uncomfortable. And I’ve wondered:
What is the tool we need in order to focus these holy days’ message of hope and determination in order to confidently confront the difficult challenges in our lives?
A few weeks ago, I re-read that sermon once more. During these sweltering days of August, when the air weighs as heavy as the import of the holy days forthcoming, I realized one thing which has held me together this past year and which I offer as a prescription to guide us all into the new one ahead. I found that answer, sitting, waiting for me all this time, on my bookshelf.
There is another Shel Silverstein classic, as familiar to many of us if not more so than “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” The other staple of children’s literature he has left us is, of course, “The Giving Tree,” the tale of a tree that does not stop giving.
Once there was a tree…
And she loved a little boy.
And every day that boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.
He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples…
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree… very much.
And the tree was happy.
But time went by. And the boy grew older.
And this boy, primed to know that the tree will give him all that he needs out of selfless, endless love, keeps returning to the tree and taking. He takes her apples to sell and her branches to build a house and her trunk to build a boat to get away from it all. He grows old. And the tree keeps giving. And the boy keeps on taking.
And after a long time the boy came back again.
“I am sorry, Boy,” said the tree, “but I have nothing left for you… I wish that I could give you something… but I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry…”
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”
“Come boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
How many of us have Giving Trees in our lives, friends, family who will give anything and everything for us at the blink of an eye? Giving Trees in the form of total strangers too, who show up in the story of our lives for brief moments, only to disappear backstage as quickly as they entered, but leaving behind a wake of goodness or blessing or both. Our Giving Trees allow us to survive the messiness of where the sidewalk ends, shading that earth scorched by the sun’s hot rays so that we can stand tall in our weakest moments.
Maybe we are sitting next to our Giving Trees right at this moment. Maybe they’re at another shul across town, or maybe they live on the other side of the country entirely.
They fill our lives with good, comforting us, consoling us, protecting us. We are who we are because of the selflessness of others’ giving.
And I want to take a moment to reflect on the giving soul that has shaped my life of late, to share with you some anecdotes from my past year in hopes of unpacking the experience and import of the Giving Tree.
When my mom was first diagnosed with this horror called a disease, my dad worried that – as she prepared for chemotherapy and the resulting shock to her immune system – she would no longer receive enough hugs and kisses. So he, by himself, for no reason other than resonant love for a member of his family, organized a campaign whereby hundreds upon hundreds of individuals mailed cards, signs, even posters with “Hugs” and “Kisses” written or drawn on them. My mom came home from her first round of chemo to a 4,000 square foot house plastered floor to ceiling with love.
My father gave a eulogy at her funeral. My father shoveled dirt on to her grave. My father, my mom’s ex-husband, has cried as many tears in the eight months since her passing than any one of us.
Two months after my mom’s death, my dad was not satisfied marking her birthday as yet another day on the calendar of mourning. So, in celebration of her deep love for clothing – a deep, profound love, in fact, so great that, nine months later, we still find clothing with tags on it in her closet, waiting to be returned to Nordstrom – in celebration of my mom’s guilty pleasure, my dad organized a campaign to create a new project of the San Diego Jewish Gift Closet. Lori’s Line, as it has been named, offers upscale professional attire for free to women in need. Dozens of women sitting in shul in San Diego this morning are wearing their holiday finest, because my mom no longer can. My mom’s legacy, thanks to my father, endures.
On the morning my mom died, when we rushed into her home only minutes too late to be with her before her last breath on this earth, as we cried in bewilderment for what seemed like eons, my dad, all alone, sat with my mom’s cold body and held her hand. He watched her. He protected her, for almost an hour, silent. Unmoving. Devoted.
The Giving Tree is a person whose first concern is selfless love, a person whose sole goal is support.
My father is a Giving Tree.
Under the most horrific of circumstances my dad thrived, giving of himself to me and to my family more than I could ever imagine one person doing in a lifetime, expecting nothing in return.
My dad is my Giving Tree.
He is not perfect. He is stubborn and closed-minded. He has failings and mishaps, and mistakes. In fact, I’m quite certain that, at the end of the day, he may just be a pretty average guy. But that’s just the point! We can be Giving Trees to others even in our own mediocrity. Giving is not a super-human act. It is something that each of us does and each of us receives.
However blessed or cursed our past year may have been, each of us has been touched by someone else’s giving.
But have we thanked them?
I had not, until three days ago, when, tears pouring down my face and his, I read this sermon to my dad, I looked him in the eye via video-chat and told him how unbelievably grateful I am for all he is and all he has done.
Have you thanked your Giving Tree?
Do they know how much you love them, how much you appreciate all they give? Do you give back to them, not just with your presence but with your own time and energy and love? Do you fill your life with the gratitude that it deserves because of the giving souls that define it?
If we learn anything from this Shel Silverstein classic, it is that a Giving Tree unthanked, unappreciated, ignored even, withers away into a leafless stump of an abused soul. This warning hidden within the pages of the The Giving Tree is of paramount import if we are to properly understand the story.
At first read, the Giving Tree, is a touching tale of love.
But was the Giving Tree truly happy? Did she feel appreciated and thanked for all she did for the boy? Or was her happiness merely a facade to cover the deep sadness that she felt, longing for the one to whom she had given to give back to her?
And what of the boy? He was a boy! Not a man, not an adult, he acted like a child to this tree his whole life! He took and took and took.
The Giving Tree is less a tale of love than a warning against being ungrateful, an invitation for us to fill our lives with gratitude for all the ways that people give.
Gratitude is about acknowledging all the good we do have in our lives and expressing thanks to those responsible. Gratitude is about realizing that we are surrounded by blessing, but it has causes, it has sources. Gratitude is as much about filling our own lives with directed goodwill and appreciation as it is about building up the selfless souls who have given to us all that we have.
Gratitude is about being an adult, not a child. About taking responsibility for receiving, not just taking from this earth and society without end. Thanksgiving is something which must take place every day, not just the fourth Thursday of November. And most people, like the tree at the end of the boy’s long life, don’t need much to experience the appreciation of someone else’s gratitude. It takes a moment, a second. It takes a smile, or two words: “Thank you.”
I challenge each of us fill our lives this new year with those two simple words.
Midrash Vayikra Rabbah teaches: “In the World to Come all sacrifices will be annulled, but the Thanksgiving Sacrifice will not be annulled. All prayers will be annulled, but prayers of thanksgiving will not be annulled.”
The world-to-come is Judaism’s understanding of a time in which we are inundated with Giving Trees – a more-perfect world, a time free of pain and disease and war and lust, a time when our tradition understands we will be so filled with all we need that we no longer have to pray for anything. Prayer and sacrifices cease to continue in the world to come. God’s presence and majesty – the very thing we proclaimed and praised only moments ago during musaf – will fill the earth.
Yet, even then, or, rather, all the more so then, we will still offer prayers of gratitude, sacrifices of thanks.
Gratitude is something which we can never let cease. Gratitude is itself the Giving Tree, which never dies, never goes away.
In this new year ahead, I beg us all to focus our attention on gratitude. Let us work to bring meaning to our lives such that when we are confronted with the bumpy asphalt of an ended sidewalk we know that we did our best. And then, let us go out and thank the people we love, thank the people we hardly know who have given. Let us fill our lives with so much gratitude and appreciation that we wholly internalize all the good that is bestowed upon us.
Let us appreciate the Giving Trees in our lives, big and small, well-known and private, so that we can transform the Book of Life into a Book of Life and Blessing. Let us remember that the Book of Life is itself made of pages bound together – pages themselves mulled from paper, from another Giving Tree. Let us say thank you.
Then our new year will be sweet. Sweet with the honey of love, the honey of appreciation, the honey of gratitude. Sweet with the honey of knowing that we are who we are because of the great giving souls that fill our lives, some for small moments, others for many many years.
At my mother’s funeral, my dad eulogized her with words from the musical “Wicked”. He said,
I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
How many of us wish that we had said “thank you” to a love one who has passed? Let us not wait until those whom we love are gone to share such words of gratitude with them. This new year, with its open Book of Life, may present us with all sorts of challenges and opportunities, trials and triumphs, setbacks and successes.
But as we navigate the messy road ahead, passing bumps and cracks and places where the sidewalk seems to end beneath our feet, let us not miss the blessing of the trees beside the road. They give us shade, they protect us, they allow us, enable us, to keep on moving forward.
Let us turn in gratitude, true, honest, open, devoted thanks and appreciation for those people in our lives that make it what it is, that make us who we are, that fill our lives with goodness and thanks and giving. It is not always easy. But it is so so necessary.
Let us thank them. And appreciate them. And say to them, “I love you.”
Shanah tovah, u’metukah, tikateivun.
Rosh Hashanah 5774
Rabbi David J. Singer