Have you ever planted a young sapling and nurtured it to full growth?
If so, you know how much work is involved. Right from the start, one must provide training supports; the soil must be enriched and weeded regularly. Then, as the plant grows, there is pest control, pruning, and more. It goes without saying that water and fertilizer must be supplied in the right amounts, and at the right time. All in all, seeing a sapling into tree-hood requires considerable effort and ongoing attention.
Even more than physical effort, however, the nursing of a sapling calls for faith. No matter how skilled, muscular, or knowledgeable he may be, no gardener or farmer enjoys instant gratification. One must firmly believe that the sapling has within it the potential to grow and flourish. Only the hope of eventually seeing the mature tree sway in the breeze, and perhaps bear fruit, keeps a person at the long-term task of tending to a sapling until it becomes a full-blown tree.
"Man is like a tree of the field," the verse tells us (Deuteronomy 20:19). Raising a child requires constant effort and faith that in the end, our child will become a mature adult and bring us deep satisfaction. Nurturing a tree is a lot like nurturing the growth of our children, but far easier.
The famous story in the Talmud (Ta'anis 23a) describes Choni the Circle Maker happening upon an old man planting a carob tree.
"When is that tree due to bear fruit?" Choni asked.
The old man responded, "In seventy years' time."
"But surely you don't expect to live that long!" Choni exclaimed in surprise.
"That's true," replied the old man. "But when I was young, I found a carob tree that my ancestors had planted for me. Now it is only fitting that I plant a carob tree for my future progeny in turn."
Like the old man, we as parents and educators must remember to maintain a long-term perspective. Just as a child's physical growth is an ongoing, gradual process, so, too, does his behavior take time to reach maturity. We can not expect immediate gratification from our efforts to educate our children, but must persist with the faith that every effort we invest will eventually bear fruit.
While weeds grow rampant with no effort on our part, with trees, flowers, and other useful plants, we achieve nothing without investing effort. Healthy saplings must have a nutrient-rich environment. We do our best to assure optimal weather conditions. However, meeting these basic needs is not enough. To facilitate the growth of one's sapling-children, the gardener-parent must provide loving support. From watering to weeding to pest removal, fruit-bearing trees need constant, individual attention, geared to their specific needs.
Children have need of a great deal more of individual attention than trees in order to develop properly. Like trees, children require constant monitoring to ensure that their needs are being met. Basic items like adequate nutrition, shelter, clothing, and healthcare go without saying. However much children need physical care, they require constant, consistent care on a spiritual level even more. Judaism places tremendous emphasis on this "secret" of successful childrearing. Children, like the trees of the field, cannot fulfill their potential unless constantly monitored, cared for, and individually nurtured.
During the earliest stages of their growth, saplings need to be trained on supports in order to direct their growth upward. Without the proper training, saplings may continue to develop, but are likely to grow in the wrong direction.
The same is true of human saplings! Parents and teachers must serve as strong, stable supports for them to lean upon as they grow.
However, this external support is not intended to impose qualities on the sapling from the outside. Rather, the support should bring out the potential inherent in the tree itself and encourage self-expression. Children flourish when they sense that we are there to extend a helping hand whenever needed. An atmosphere of warmth, affection, and steadfast support gives children the security they need to thrive and to express their unique strengths.
Planting in Faith
As mentioned above, the process of raising a sapling to full growth cannot be condensed in two or three dramatic spurts of effort. Competent parenting is an ongoing process. To ensure that a fruit tree reaches its full potential, one must repeatedly be on the lookout to fertilize, weeding, protect against infestation, prune, irrigate, sometimes provide physical support, and fulfill many other tasks. Not once, not twice, but again and again, whenever needed. The effort involved can be exhausting; sometimes it seems as though it will never end.
One of the six tractates of the Mishnah is called Zeraim, literally, "seeds." Another name given to this same tractate is Emunah, "faith." The farmer "places his faith in the Eternal and sows his seed," hoping and praying that his many efforts will yield the produce he seeks."
Who would invest so much time, and so much effort and money in agriculture – or parenting – unless he had the faith that, with G-d's help, his efforts will one day bear fruit?
Parenting and educating children is a demanding process, but nothing is more rewarding. After faithfully investing untold effort, and praying for success, watching our children blossom and thrive is the sweetest reward of all.