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Reflections on Trees and Children

January 29, 2021
By Adam Tilove

This past week we celebrated Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the Trees. I always found it fanciful and romantic that we have a holiday celebrating trees. As Jews, we are inextricably connected to nature -- from our calendar which is connected to the cycle of the moons, to Sukkot, in which we ‘dwell’ outside for 8 days, to our three harvest festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, know together as the shalosh regalim, or ‘three legs’), to God placing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden “to work and protect it” (Genesis 2:15) -- as Jews we are intended to live in unison with our natural world. 

But a holiday specifically for trees??? As a huge fan of trees, I find this particularly delightful. 

Yes, I love trees. My grandfather was a bonsai collector and cultivator. As a child I remember wandering through his small garden admiring their beauty. As an adult, I too have studied, collected and cultivated (and killed) many bonsai. And so I have reflected deeply on their beauty, strength and delicacy.

Growing a tree is actually pretty easy. All it takes is sun, water, soil and a seed. But making a beautiful tree is something different entirely. Beautiful trees require both age and stress. Take for example, a bonsai in the windswept style (fukinagashi).

A tree such as this one emulates a tree growing under strong and unrelenting wind. In the forest style (Yose-ue), trees grow together in a shape that maximizes each tree’s ability to gather sunlight in a competitive environment. 

Some bonsai emulate what a tree would look like growing over a rock, thriving in the most difficult terrain - finding enough sun and light to thrive without abundant soil.

And some bonsai have dead wood (jin and/or shari) incorporated into their design to emulate a tree that may have been struck by lightning, or suffered some kind of disease but survived to become even more beautiful.

I’ve often thought about education like bonsai. We have two jobs in school: The first is to provide light, water and soil. Through unconditional love of our students, we allow them to grow and thrive. But that is not our only job. We also have to give them the right amount of stress.

We have high expectations of our students. We ask them to work for us. We correct their writing and tell them to do it again. We give them homework and tests. When they behave poorly, we call them on it. We study a foreign language with different alphabet and grammatical structure. And we ask them to reflect on how they can be better versions of themselves. 

It’s not always easy. But easy paths don’t make beautiful trees ... or people.

The educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky described a concept called the Zone of Proximal Development, which essentially says that our job as educators is to continually push students out of their comfort zone so that they can achieve new tasks with some support, but not to push them so far that they are completely incapable of achieving a task. In bonsai terms, this would be a strong unrelenting wind, but not a hurricane. When the students can do the tasks completely unassisted, we push them back to the uncomfortable zone again.

And much like with bonsai, the beauty is visible after years, not days, weeks, or even months. In our school, the greatest rewards are found after years. When I see our high school students reading and arguing Talmud or reading Torah independently, or studying and discussing books such as Guns, Germs and Steel, or actively and independently planning debates for local politicians, it becomes clear what a long-term HBHA provides our children. They are strong, confident, learned, kind, and beautiful people. 

So the next time you appreciate a beautiful tree, remember that they represent your children: They are thriving because our your (and our) unconditional love and support, but they are their best selves because we are unrelenting our our efforts to make them better thinkers, harder workers, and more righteous people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adam Tilove
HBHA Head of School