What's Tony Thinking

We Are the Elders Who Remain


In the days following the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a friend passed on to us the following thoughtful piece from Marc Freedman. (The photo is one I took recently of an oak tree in the Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines.)

“As the people in Pittsburgh begin to bury their loved ones, massacred inside the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday, my thoughts turn to my own father’s funeral last year and a passage from the Talmud read that day. It’s the story of a rabbi passing through a field, noticing an old man planting an acorn.

“Why are you planting that acorn?” the rabbi asks, in what I imagine is a scoffing tone. “You surely do not expect to live long enough to see it grow into an oak tree.”

“To which the old man—turning slowly from the ground to fix his gaze on the not-so-wise clergyman—says, “My ancestors planted seeds so that I might enjoy the shade and the fruit of trees. I do likewise for those who come after me.”

“It sounded so familiar to me. For years, I’d been quoting a Greek proverb that reads, “Society grows great when older people plant trees under whose shade they shall never sit.”

“Planting, tending, bequeathing to the next generation—it’s the essential human project, one we’ve long understood yet let slip over the past half century. It is our role as older people to plant those trees under whose shade we shall never sit. Our task is not to try to be young, but to be there for those who actually are.

“Given the new demographics and longevity, embracing this role is the only way we can survive as a society. Those killed in Pittsburgh surely knew this. The elders, pillars in the congregation for decades, had gathered with younger families to celebrate the birth of a baby. And now 11 of them are gone.

“We are the elders who remain. To honor all those who are gone, killed because of fear and hate, let us remember and embrace our role as gardeners and teachers, mentors and peacemakers, tenders of souls.

“Out of gratitude for all that was planted before us, let us resolve to do right by future generations, leave the world better than we found it, and begin to do so now.”

I particularly like Freedman’s observation, “Our task is not to try to be young, but to be there for those who actually are.”

His words also recalled for me a moving video we saw years ago at the Kennedy Library just outside of Boston. In it a young John F. Kennedy, just days before his assassination, was asked by a reporter,”If you knew the world were going to end tomorrow, what would you do?” JFK: “I think I would plant a tree.”

There are literal trees to plant and metaphorical ones.

Most everywhere we’ve lived I’ve planted trees. In recent years, I’ve planted fourteen trees at our property in the Wallowa Mountains. One of the trees that shades us there was planted by my father forty years ago.

And metaphorical trees? I think now of voting. Perhaps not only voting but treating the act of voting with reverence. And sharing your views of the sacred importance of voting with younger generations.

So many of you who read these posts are at work planting trees to provide shade for the next generation.

Bless you. Keep up the good work. Tony



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