Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA. He is a congregational rabbi, an educator, a progressive Zionist, and a human rights activist. Rabbi Meszler was a Brickner Fellow through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and regularly participates in the RAC’s lobbying efforts. He is a member and has served as organizer of the Sharon Interfaith Clergy Association, a part of AIPAC’s Progressive Rabbis Mission to Israel (2018), belongs to the Hevraya of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and served as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service in 2017-18. He was a contributor to the HuffPost Religion Blog, 2013-2018. Rabbi Meszler is also the founder and organizer of “Daf Yomi for Progressive Rabbis,” a group of over 400 rabbis studying the daily Talmud page. He is the author of many books and included in several anthologies. I sat down with Rabbi Meszler to talk about his new children’s book about what happens when a friendly little bee sets out in search of a new home.
ReformJudaism.org What inspired you to write a children’s book about kindness?
At the baby naming ceremony for our daughter, Samantha (18 years ago), my wife, Rabbi Julie Zupan, remarked, “The world is going to value you whether you're beautiful or you're smart or you're strong, but what's most important to us is that you are kind.” These words, which epitomize our values, inspired this story.
Did you have opportunities to test it out on children and parents?
I wrote this story when I was looking for a moral lesson to teach for a Rosh HaShanah temple tot service back in 2006. Not only did I test it out, but we performed it using props. It's a story that easily lends itself to dramatization. So every few years, I would reintroduce the story to a new group of preschoolers. I would ask four children to stand up and spread out their arms, pretending to be different trees, and a parent or I would play the honey bee, wearing an antennae headband and a black t-shirt wrapped with rounds of yellow crepe paper. It was always a big hit.
What triggered the decision to turn the story into a book?
My writer sister, Joelle, to whom the book is dedicated, talked to Jason Graves at Prospective Press, who showed immediate interest in publishing the story.
When my wife, who is a preschool teacher, read the book, she was impressed with how carefully the different kinds of trees and their leaves were depicted in the illustrations. Was that your idea?
That was the vision of illustrator Kris Graves, who in addition to being very talented is also the child of the publisher. The honey bee and trees are all rendered as they would appear in nature. I’m very pleased with the result because I know that most children love to squat down and look closely at bugs, leaves, acorns, and the like. One of the things that I loved about Kris’ illustrations is that they show the apple tree in bloom.
What lesson do you hope readers will get from your fable about why we dip apples in honey on Rosh HaShanah?
In my books and in my writing, there's a very strong focus on tzedakah (philanthropy), justice, and compassion. For me, customs like dipping apple slices in honey on Rosh HaShanah are to remind us of the connection between sweetness and the core Jewish value of kindness.
My 8-year-old granddaughter’s first reaction to the book was that the story is sad. When I asked why she felt that way, she focused on the first three trees that rejected the honey bee’s request for a place to build a hive. How important was it for you to explore in this story the roots (no pun intended) of some of the impediments to acting with kindness?
The temptation is to always present to our children a world of kindness and light. In our secular culture, children are told they are good if they are strong (especially boys), or if they are smart and get good grades, or if they are beautiful (especially girls). One can be smart and strong and beautiful -- and also unkind. In the Jewish tradition, kindness is a paramount value, and that is what I was trying to convey in this book.
At the same time, I was trying to not be too harsh in portraying the trees that said “Buzz off” to the honey bee. One of my worries is that kids will start telling each other to buzz off, which is the exact opposite of the moral of the story. Still, I think directly addressing unkindness is a worthy conversation topic for teachers and parents to have with children.
The honey bee and the apple tree were very happy together. What is the significance of their relationship?
It's about the interdependence of all living things in Creation. A honey bee and an apple tree need each other because the bee needs to build a hive somewhere the tree’s flowers need to get pollinated somehow. We are happiest when we are interconnected.