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A Metaphor

Your Child, Your Tree

Your Child, Your Tree

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''Fall'' by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman
"Fall" by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman

A child needs the same things a tree needs... Earth. Water. Sun. Air... Much has been written about how best to educate a child.

What better source to look for guidance in this matter than the Torah, whose very definition and purpose is "teaching."

We find that the Torah likens man to "a tree in the field" (Deuteronomy 20:19). There are many reasons given for this linkage.

Let's explore the connection as a paradigm for education.

Educating a child is similar to cultivating a tree. In both cases, the objective is to provide them with their needs in order to coax out the potential that they have.

When you come to think of it, a child needs the very same things a tree does in order to grow.

Earth. Water. Sun. Air.

Each one of these four elements represents a basic component necessary to provide a child with what it needs in order to grow and develop properly.

Earth:

The more "rooted" a child is in his source of nourishment, the stronger he will grow... Earth provides the tree with nutrients. Applied to the education of a child, it represents both the values we wish him to absorb as well as the connectedness we want him to feel. A child is not a mushroom; he has deep roots that connect him to a rich source of nourishment. The stronger his connection to this source, the stronger he will grow to be.

Earth also represents stability, immobility. A child must feel secure in knowing that there are values and rules that are inviolable. He is not being given disposable, fashionable, PC values which are "here today, gone tomorrow."

In one of his very informative and enlightening articles on the topic of education, Rabbi Yaakov Lieder quotes a farmer who described his cattle's behavior each time he would bring them to new grazing grounds. First they would check the fence to make sure that there were no breaches. They would then proceed to graze. He explained this phenomenon thus: once they saw that the boundaries enclosing them were inviolable, they were able to go on grazing comfortably. They were not distracted by the possibility of escape.

The application of this concept to education is very powerful. In order for our children to be happy and successful, they must feel secure and trust the rules and limits established by their parents. There are many decisions regarding the wellbeing and future of a child that he or she should not have to worry about, certainly not at this point of his or her life.

Water:

Water is crucial for a plant's growth. Amongst other things, it helps dissolve the nutrients so that they become absorbable by the plant. Water also assures that the roots do not dry out so that they may continue to function optimally. The most nutrient-rich soil is useless if the plant lacks the capacity to absorb them.

water represents humility In the writings of Chassidism, water represents humility. Humility is an indispensable quality when it comes to being open to absorbing new information.

Our children must have humility in order to learn; if they think they know it all, they will not learn.

By the same token, we as teachers and parents must have humility in order to teach. When teaching our children, we must humbly accept and "lower" ourselves to their level. We must translate whatever we want to say into a language they can comfortably understand and absorb. That is one of the reasons that wisdom is compared to water. Water, like wisdom, finds itself most comfortable in the lowest (i.e., most humble) recipient.

There is a story of a chassid who came to consult with Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi about issues that he had regarding the education of his children.

As he approached Rabbi Schneur Zalman's door, he noticed through the window that his Rebbe was playing with his grandson. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was crawling on the floor with his grandson on his back as if he were riding a pony.

The chassid walked away and came back a while later to speak with Rabbi Schneur Zalman.

After the chassid described his problem, Rabbi Schneur Zalman said to him: "It's a shame you weren't here a short while ago when I was playing with my grandson. You would've seen how it is necessary to lower yourself to the other person's level in order to be able to communicate more successfully..."

Water also represents transparency and purity. When you want to produce apples, for example, you need to irrigate an apple seed with water; you cannot produce apples by irrigating orange seeds with apple juice. Pure water brings out the particular potential of each seed. In order to bring out the particular potential of each child, he must be provided with pure water, the pure unadulterated truths of the Torah. He will then grow and develop in his own particular way and eventually make his unique contribution to the Jewish people.

Sun:

A tree needs both the light and warmth radiated by the sun.

Light: We must not just tell our children what to do; we must show them the beauty and richness of what is right. We find the expression (Talmud, Yevamot 114a, cited in Rashi on Leviticus 21:1) lehazhir gedolim al haktanim, We must not just tell our children what to do; we must show them the beauty and richness of what is right which means that the Torah warns the adults that they are responsible for their children's behavior. The Rebbe points out that the expression lehazhir--literally, "to warn" or "to instruct"--can also be translated as "to make shine." Parents must not just instruct their children what to do; they must illuminate the world of their children. They must transmit a shining Judaism. In the words of the Book of Proverbs, Torah ohr, "Torah is light." Torah teaching illuminates, shows what is right and wrong, rather than just imposing it.

Warmth: We must provide our children with unconditional love. Our love for them must be as predictable as the sunrise. They must never feel that our love to them is conditional. They must know that even when we get angry, we still love them. This unconditional love instills in them a self-esteem and security that allows them to face life's challenges with confidence.

Air:

"Air" implies two things: space and atmosphere.

Space: Just as a tree needs space to grow, so too does a child need his own identity and the "space" within which to develop it. a child needs his own identity... and the "space" within which to develop it He needs his own, personal quality time with his parents. He might have unique talents or hobbies that need to be developed. Also, the child's privacy must be respected and protected. This includes being careful not to divulge anything that was told to you by him in confidence. The Rebbe would personally open every single letter that he received (!) in order to protect the privacy of the sender. The Rebbe would not allow anyone to enter that person's "space" without permission.

Atmosphere: It is very important to be aware of the environment that surrounds your child and the "quality of air" that he breathes, in the home as well as outside it. What does your child see at home? Does he see mutual respect and love between his parents? Does he see them happy and secure with who they are and what they are doing? What does he see his parents do? What does he hear them say (out of earshot, supposedly)? Who are his friends? What do they talk about in their homes? What do they talk about during recess? What are their attitudes?

The atmosphere is determined not so much by what is said as by what is done.

I remember once talking to a couple who explained that they couldn't come to shul on Friday evenings because "we have a weekly bridge game with friends." A while later they complained to me about the fact that their son was doing something that they had taught him not to do. "We told him countless times that such behavior would be unacceptable to us. How can he just turn his back on the education we gave him?" they wondered.

Being a gardener is a full time job "He is not ignoring you at all," I replied. "You were very successful in your education. You taught him that one does what one wants and not necessarily what one should... The fact that what he wants differs from what you want is just a detail. The main lesson was well learned by him."

What your child "breathes in" from the atmosphere in which he grows is more significant than what he hears.


Most important of all is to remember that being a parent/gardener is a full time job. We must be consistent and persistent in tending our gardens and constantly on the lookout for problems that might arise and "nip them in the bud" before they grow out of control.

Remember: Trees never complain. Likewise, children oftentimes do not adequately express what they need when they need it. They often suffer in silence. It's our job to tend to the precious seedling that has been placed in our care.

Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov is the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Montevideo, Uruguay, and a contributor to Chabad.org.
Painting by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.
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Deepak India July 6, 2017

A meaningfull and carefully written words which is easier to get understand Reply

Anonymous London January 13, 2017

Bizzare comparison Although your interpretation is commendable, I doubt Deuteronomy 20:19 intends to represent nurture. It is about exploitation of resources - or more specifically considering what others can offer and sparing them for your own benefit. This is pretty obvious when considering the next paragraph which says its ok to destroy those that offer nothing.

It is plausible this wisdom was imparted as a carefully constructed metaphor and reasoning design to appeal to the selfish nature of human leadership - thus saving lives. But it certainly wasn't intended to appeal to the nurturing nature of human leadership. Quite the opposite.

So unless your approach to parenting is to nurture children so they can benefit you, your analogy is pretty off the mark. Most parents nurture a child for the child's sake - not their own. It's called love.

In reality this should be read as it reads and nothing more. During war you need wood. Don't chop down fruit trees though because you need food too. Reply

Anonymous January 18, 2010

a child is like a tree Lazer.

Very well written and poignant. may you have lots of Nachas from yours. Reply

Anonymous Sterling Heights, MI September 18, 2006

Children and Trees THANK YOU, Thank You, thank you! I've been struggling within myself for quite some time now as to what I've needed to change regarding my son's G-dly training as evidenced by his actions and attitudes. Thanks to your dilligence to print this article, I now know... Reply

Eliezer Montevideo September 17, 2006

To JR When I was a child I was taught never to say that food served to me was 'disgusting' but rather, 'I don't like it...'. My mother explained to me that 'even though YOU might not like spinach, there are many people in the world that do. So it's not the food that's disgusting; it's just a matter of your personal taste...'

Limits don't work very well if they are imposed without justification, just because 'I am bigger than you'.

Yes, sometimes a child has to accept 'because I said so' as an answer from his parent or teacher... But education has to be made up of much more than that... Hot pepper is not a very good diet...

Should we teach our children to do what they want to? Like to? Should? Have to?

IMHO a child has to be taught to to do what he wants, and want to do what he should. Notice that I am not saying that he should do what he likes, but what he wants, and should be taught to want to do what he should even though he may not like it (yet).

Good luck! Reply

Anonymous sarasota, fl/usa September 15, 2006

child tree needs well said Reply

JR Montevideo, Uruguay September 14, 2006

I come from a generation educated with clear concepts of what was right or wrong. Thinks were black or white. We never say that we find the food disgusting... The answer to our questions was "because I say so and I am your mother".

What were the consequences? That we have kids that have no limits. We encourage them to do whatever they feel, they like taking into consideration all their whises.

My question is, why having strong limits is bad and having no limits is bad too?

What shoud we do about it? Reply

Anonymous via chabadnatick.com September 14, 2006

Beautiful. I only wish I had read this years ago. Fortunately, I found this out through other sources and I have happy and solidly planted children. Now that I know this is here, I'll be sure to send others to see it. Reply

Anonymous September 13, 2006

Thank you for the extremely inspiring article, I am going to print it for my married children Thank you Reply

Rivka A boise, id via jewishidaho.com September 13, 2006

your Child, Your tree very good, should be tought to couples who would like to have chlidren and any one who already has children. I believe this very true.
Thank you Reply

Ariel Los Angeles, CA September 13, 2006

Brilliant. Excellent. Thank you. Reply

Eliezer Shemtov Montevideo, Uruguay September 13, 2006

One more thought Fertilizer helps plants grow.
Teach your child that life is full of unpleasant situations. Show him how to discover within them challenges and opportunities for increased personal growth. Reply

Anonymous bklyn, ny September 12, 2006

Thank you. A beautiful article. Kol Hakovod. Reply

Glori Tenafly, NJ September 11, 2006

Children like trees... Thank you for this profound and wise article.
I will pass it to young couple and in my work with parents who are lost being sandwiched between their own values and the mainstream nefarious trends...
G-d bless. Reply

Tzion Daromi Mineola, NY September 11, 2006

Brilliant content.Beautifully written. Reply

chad NYC September 10, 2006

Great article! very wise and helpful. thankyou "rabino" ! Reply