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 glance 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.