Parashat Va'etchanan: I am the Lorax, I Speak for the Trees
He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish. And mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy. "Mister!" he said with a sawdusty sneeze, "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
So declares Dr. Seuss’s title character of his book, The Lorax. Written in 1971, it is an early environmental text, a cautionary tale for what happens when human desire leads to the destruction of natural resources. The Lorax challenges the Once-Ler, who wants to cut down all of the truffula trees for his business, eventually causing the entire ecosystem to collapse.
Reading The Lorax — and spending time in the Berkshires, of course — are two foundational elements of my own environmentalism.
Sometimes figures such as the Lorax are dismissed, considered obnoxious, or out of touch. The Lorax is not unlike our ancient prophets, who shared God’s warnings with the people — particularly when they violated our ethical commandments, even as they put on the pretense of following Jewish rituals. I admired the Lorax and staged a few of my own environmental interventions at a young age. However, a lone voice shouting into the wind is not always the most effective way to make change.
This week, I read an article in the Washington Post that shifted my perspective on the Lorax. As the Post explains, a new study of this book
“…stemmed from a chance encounter at Dartmouth. Nathaniel J. Dominy, an anthropology professor with two small children, and Donald E. Pease, an English professor who wrote a biography of Geisel, found themselves seated next to each other at an academic dinner. The two scholars soon realized that their work overlapped in a curious way: Dominy is an expert on primates in Kenya; Pease noted that Geisel published “The Lorax” soon after a trip to Kenya in 1970….
Now, almost a half-century after the Lorax first popped out of a stump, his real identity can be revealed….[How?] the scientists fed photos of monkeys and illustrations of the Lorax into a computer to determine the closest match.
Their conclusion: The Lorax was inspired by the patas monkeys that live in West and East Africa. These creatures share the Lorax’s general facial characteristics, particularly his distinctive mustache. The monkeys’ vocalizations sound like the Lorax’s “sawdusty sneeze.” And the monkeys depend, for 80 percent of their diet, on the Seussian-looking whistling thorn acacia trees of the Laikipia plateau."
It’s incredible what we can learn from modern science and interdisciplinary research!
Here’s what’s striking about the discovery. The Lorax was not a polemical outsider. The Lorax was part of the ecosystem, equally dependent on the truffula trees for his survival. The Lorax spoke up for his people and his community. The Lorax was of the people and of the community.
In this way, the Lorax is like Moses. A leader, yes, and also one of the people. Moses does stand apart from the people - sometimes physically, on Mount Sinai, and sometimes metaphorically, making speeches, as he does for most of the book of Deuteronomy, relaying God’s laws to the people.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, is loaded with familiar texts. In addition to the second recitation of the Ten Commandments, we also find the Sh’ma, a central prayer in our liturgy.
Moses proclaims: Here O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone!
There’s lots to unpack about this statement, and we’ll do that tomorrow at Torah Plus.
Here’s one piece of commentary from Ramban on this verse:
“Moses includes himself here by saying not ‘your God’ (as elsewhere throughout Deuteronomy) but ‘our God.’”
Our God, not Your God. Moses is in it with the Jewish people. In this moment, he is among the people, not above them.
When we see the Sh’ma written in the Torah scroll or in our prayerbooks, the ayin - the last letter of the first word, Sh’ma - Hear -, and the daled, the last letter of the final word of the setence, echad - one - are both enlarged and written more boldly. There are several explanations for this tradition, for these two bold letters, ayin and daled. Some say that this represents a Hebrew word, eid, spelled with those two letters. Eid. Witness. When we recite the Sh’ma, we are witnesses to God.
When Moses, the Lorax, and other leaders speak up from among the community, they serve as eidim - witnesses. They bear witness to the reality and the struggle and they find the courage to speak and to act.
In our Temple family, we have our own Moses’es and Loraxes. Our incredible Social Action Committee, led by Janie and Larry Pellish, model speaking and acting from among the community. The Social Action Committee is acutely aware of the needs of our Temple family, the Pittsfield community, and beyond, and they shepherd many projects to address these needs.
The yearly Thanksgiving Angels food drive begins on August 1st. This program helps to provide a Thanksgiving meal for so, so many in our area. This year, the Anshe community is responsible for collecting cans of cranberry sauce, beginning August 1st.
A second project, the Winter Fuel Assistance drive, begins August 15th. Both of these projects are interfaith efforts that strengthen the relationships in our broader community through the good that we do. Janie is here tonight if you’d like to talk with her more about how you can get involved.
I saw the Lorax in a new light this week. I always admired him, and other, non-fictional characters, too, for speaking up and speaking out. The Lorax, Moses, our social action committee, and so many others, help us work toward Tikkun Olam, the repair of our world, by being in and among our community, not above or apart.
May we all find ways to step up, in and among our community.