The Lorax and Deuteronomy

by Rabbi Shai Gluskin

I've probably read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss about 40 times in the last three weeks. It's the current top hit of my 4.5 year old son.

The Lorax begins with an angry narrator bemoaning the state of a polluted world. The narrator addresses a curious reader who is interested in finding out just how the world got into such a fine mess. Well, go ask the evil Once-ler, he knows. He's responsible! The reader has to pay the stingy Once-ler even just to listen to the story.

Once we've paid the 15 cents, the Once-ler begins, and goes on and on. What is striking is that the evil character gets to tell the story.

The "good guy" in the story is The Lorax": Once-ler describes him:

He was shortish. And oldish.
And brownish. And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
that was sharpish and bossy.

The Lorax speaks for the trees and all the other natural phenomena that are threatened by the Once-ler's factories. The Lorax is a prophet, the clear voice of conscience. Yet he never speaks in his own voice. He is only quoted by Once-ler.

What would it be like if the suffering of 9/11 were told by a member of Al Qaida? If Palestinian liberation were told by Arik Sharon? If the attainment of a safe Israel were told by a leader of Hamas? Is there a possibility that narrative itself opens possibilites for opening to the other and confronting oneself?

The fact that the narrator clearly doesn't trust this Once-ler makes the Once-ler's ultimate transformation more powerful. The act of telling the story allows Once-ler to see that his biggering

["I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering...selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs."]

was a mistake.

The prophet-like Lorax leaves the scene when things get too bad. He inscribes the word "unless" on a platform with no explanation.

Once-ler reports that he has worried constantly about the Lorax' message and never figured it out -- until the reader came on the seen and asked to be told the story:

"But now", says the Once-ler,
"Now that you're here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear,
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better,
It's not.

Then the Once-ler offers the reader the last of the seeds of the extinct Trufula trees.

In Aviva Zornberg's commentary on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture, she argues that the central Jewish task, achieved significantly at the Passover Seder is, "V'higadta" "You shall tell the story." Just as the reader, a child, was the key catalyst in the Once-ler's beginning of repentance, so too at the seder it is the child who demands explanations and, hopefully, provokes a similar jump in self-awareness on the part of the adults.

The rabbinic name for Deuteronomy, Mishneh Torah (same name that Maimonidies chose for his book), means second Torah, or "The Torah Again." Moses speaks to the people as if they were the ones who left Egypt. But his audience is, in fact, the people who were never in Egypt. This conflation of the generations becomes basic to Judaism: "We were all at Sinai", "We all left Egypt." It is this ability to imagine someone else's story as your own, and your own story as someone else's that helps us to stretch. It is only through this kind of stretching that we will become fully aware of our own sins and begin to gain some momentum for healing.

Put the words of Deuteronomy in the first horribly ugly picture in "The Lorax" where the earth is devastated: "Re'eh - see - I put before you a blessing and a curse." Where is the blessing?" you ask. It's there -- begin to tell and you may begin to heal.

When I arrive at my 100th reading of The Lorax, I might say, "enough". But now I'm appreciating my son, Dr. Seuss, and the Torah -- which are all honest about our imperfect world, but also point us in the direction of hope.

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