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Aesop’s Follies: Achieving Permanence Through Action  

My mother was, later in life, deeply worried about security: her own home, money in the bank, stability in all things. She was a brilliant woman, but she was also handicapped by the need to cling to things that were safe. She died too young, still obsessing about assurances for a future that she no longer could look forward to.

The Ant and the Grasshopper, one of Aesop’s fables, tells of the virtues of hard work and planning for the future. As the story goes, the grasshopper plays all summer while the ant works, storing up food. When winter comes, the ant is happily ensconced underground while the grasshopper perishes. The ant, who is clearly a conservative, gets to feel morally superior – and alive – while the more hedonistic and narcissistic grasshopper, who is clearly a liberal, gets to play the victim of the greedy and self-centered Antriarchy.

And yet, I think the grasshopper may not be all wrong. Though it is sensible to stockpile “extra” of practically anything, priorities can be easily confused. After all, “stuff,” even essentials like food and clothing, are not the purpose of existence: they are merely enablers. Once you have all you need, the extras become luxuries and then eventually become their own form of waste. After all, obsessing about permanence has its own opportunity cost: we are not living today when we are fixated on tomorrow (think on all the people who go on very low calorie diets specifically to live longer. You call that living?).

I was reminded of my mother – and Aesop – when I was trying to puzzle out some Torah verses. There are three verses in order, connected not only by proximity, but also by linguistic style – they all end with “I am the Lord your G-d.”. And I came to the conclusion that speaks directly to the challenge presented by Aesop’s insects.

Here they are:

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, because holy I am the Lord your G-d.

You shall each fear/regard your mother and your father, and guard My sabbaths: I am the Lord your G-d.

Do not face natural deities or make molten gods for yourselves: I am the Lord your G-d. (Lev. 19:2-4)

Holiness is not directly defined in the text, though I assert that different aspects of holiness are found in the elements of the tabernacle, the Mishkan. In any event, it is clear that holiness is achieved through relationships. These relationships can be familial or marital or with G-d, but any way you slice it, being holy is about directing our energies toward positive and loving connections with others.

But if so, then what is the connection to the subsequent verses: revering one’s parents and G-d’s Sabbaths; and not facing deities?

I think the explanation connects to permanence, and Aesop and, yes, my mother. In these verses the Torah does not tell us (as it does elsewhere) to not make gods of bone or wood. Those idols are biodegradable, then decompose and waste away. Instead, we are told to avoid worshipping deities that represent natural forces, or manmade deities that can be permanent. People know that the sun will shine tomorrow, that the earth and wind and sea are always there. So, too, is an idol made of the strongest materials found in the natural world, metal. And I think people do this, in part, to find a piece of permanence to cling to and identify with. It may help understand why some people are happy to sterilize themselves for the sake of the earth: they do it because, to them, the earth is more important than future people.

But the verse in the middle – connecting to our parents and G-d’s Sabbaths – offers a different form of permanence. Instead of a physical object that will be here long after we are gone, the Torah is telling us to connect to our parents, to the generations that came before. Our parents, like it or not, are our roots. But they are also mental constructs as well – our parents exist in our minds, even if there is no current shared roof or umbilical cord.

The second part reminds us to guard the Sabbaths, the holy days that G-d has made. The word for “guard” is the same that describes the angel timelessly guarding the road to the Tree of Life after the expulsion. “Guard” refers to stasis, the kind of weathered persistence that sloughs off all adversity. And the Sabbaths are our spiritual superstructure, mere mental constructs we erect that make sense of an otherwise-meaningless physical plane. Sabbaths are invented carve-outs of normal time, time that we make special for holy purpose even though (or even because) the natural world has no such divisions.

In which case, the triple verses form a coherent morality tale: We must not be seduced by the exclusively physical – but empty – philosophy of Aesop’s ant. Being holy means an ongoing investment into relationships, a relatively impermanent and insecure existence. If, on the other hand, we get our priorities confused, and think that somehow connecting to an unchanging and amoral physical world (its natural forces) fulfills our purpose, then we are divorcing ourselves from G-d, because there is no morality or holiness to be found through serving a natural deity.

If we spend our lives connected to our past and to our G-d, then it is possible to look forward. In Judaism, holiness – and its own form of permanence – is achieved not through anchoring ourselves to something that is itself physically timeless, but instead continually and spiritually reinvesting our pasts into our futures.

 

P.S. The specific language in the verses is also quite intriguing. We are not told to “honor” our father and mother, but instead to perceive or be aware of them (translated above as “revere”). That is the same word used by Adam when he said to G-d: “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was aware that I was naked, so I hid.” Adam’s newfound self-awareness came from knowledge, not from any change in the physical reality of his world. So when we are commanded to be aware of our parents, the connection is to being self-aware from where we came, and understanding that this awareness is meant to help define who we are.

P.P.S. “Do not face natural deities or make molten gods for yourselves.” is a bit odd. The first four examples of “faces” in the Torah are:

The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep and the divine wind sweeping over the face of the water

God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the face of the sky.”

God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.

Note the different faces of natural deities: water, sky, and earth. The only one missing from the classical pantheon of four elements is “fire.” Which is why the verse refers to “molten gods,” introducing that last element. In both Jewish midrash and Greek mythology, fire is not manmade – it comes from the divine.

 

[An @iwe, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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