Friday, May 25, 2012

On singing frogs and the Revelation at Sinai

Can you find the frog in this picture? 

Click photo to enlarge
Actually, finding it in the wild was whole lot harder!  With all the rain we have had this week, the frogs are singing loud and clear, but rarely do you actually see one of these little fellows, commonly known around here as "spring peepers."  Only about an inch long and leaf green, they blend in perfectly.  I spotted this one by accident while checking on some potted Amaryllis plants I had set out for the summer.  Only by the slimmest chance did I happen to see this little fellow hiding among the leaves. 

In addition to hopping into in my garden, frogs also appear in Jewish folklore.  There is a story in Perek Shirah, the classical Jewish text about how everything is praising God, which goes like this:

The Sages said concerning King David that when he completed the Psalms, he became proud.  He said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, "Is there any creature You have created in Your World that says more songs and praises than I?" 

At that moment, a frog happened across David's path, and it said to him,  "David! Do not become proud, for I recite more songs and praises than you do.  Furthermore, every song I say contains three thousand parables, as it says, 'And he spoke three thousand parables, and his songs were one thousand and five' (I Kings 5:12)."

It must have been very humbling for David, the Sweet Singer of Psalms, to be outclassed by a frog.  But anyone who has ever heard a spring chorus of singing frogs can see that this is true.  David certainly did not sing constantly all night, every night, like the frogs do!

On the other hand, when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, the Midrash (Exodus Rabba 24:9) tells us, there was absolute silence:

Rabbi Abbahu said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  When the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave the Torah, not a bird cried out, not a fowl flew, not an ox bellowed, the angels did not fly, the seraphim did not say Holy, Holy, Holy, the sea did not stir, the human creatures did not speak, but the world was still and silent.  Then the Voice went forth: "I am the Lord Thy God" (Exodus 20:2)

The purpose of this silence was so that the people gathered at the foot of Sinai would not mistake some animal sound for the Voice of God and be misled into worshipping nature.  We need only look at the plethora of animal gods that have been worshipped throughout history to see how easy this is to do.  Animals are wonderful creations, as are plants, rocks, oceans and deserts -- but they are not deities to be worshipped.  The One God of Sinai is beyond all physical forms, all earthly sounds -- and only in silence can you really hear God's Voice. 

This is why, when Elijah went to the cave to meditate (I Kings 19:11-13),  he learned that God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire.  These are powerful natural phenomena, they can inspire awe or terror -- in fact, most of our natural disasters come, in one way or another, from earth, wind, or fire.  But they are not the voices of gods.   The true God speaks to our hearts and minds from the Primal Silence.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Celebrating Thoreau's 150th Yahrzeit

Henry David Thoreau
Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of American writer and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau (after whom this blog is named).  In Jewish tradition, the anniversary of a death is called the Yahrzeit, and it is traditional to honor the life of a person whose Yahrzeit you are observing.  So, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about why this blog is called "Notes from a Jewish Thoreau,"  and what effect the life of Thoreau has had on me.  (For my nature-loving readers, that should be obvious.  Unfortunately, it might not be so obvious to my Orthodox Jewish readers, who may or may not have read Thoreau in yeshiva.)

As I have written on this blog and elsewhere, I grew up as an outlier in the Jewish community.  As a [then undiagnosed] person on the autism spectrum, I was always a loner who preferred being in nature to being with people.   When, in high school (during the early 1960s), we read Thoreau's Walden as part of the curriculum, a whole new world opened up for me. Here was a rugged individualist much like myself, who "marched to a different drummer" and found joy in the beauty of the natural world. He also understood solitude. "What sort of space is that," Thoreau asked, "which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another." Well said!  Reading Thoreau made it OK to be different.

Walden Pond, Massachussetts,  in 2010
(Photo by Ekhabishek, courtesy of Wikimedia)
I embraced Thoreau's philosophy of voluntary simplicity (to this day I have little regard for society's status symbols), and longed to live in the woods as he had done. Part of that fantasy was fulfilled through hiking, campcraft and nature study.  Today, it is even more fulfilled by my wife and I living on a 15-acre hobby farm in Minnesota.   We have a lot more amenities than Thoreau did, but his message to "simplify, simplify, simplify!" still affects our lifestyle.

Appended to my copy of Walden was Thoreau's famous essay, "Civil Disobedience." That laid the groundwork for my involvement in the anti-war movement. In the fall of 1966, I went to college and jumped head first into political activism. The local YMCA had a basement coffeehouse, where I read my protest poetry, listened to local folksingers, and met interesting people from across the country. I missed out on Woodstock, but did ride a bus to Washington D.C., where I held hands and sang "give peace a chance" with a quarter of a million flower children. Those were idealistic times, when we all believed that a new age of peace and love was just around the corner. Although it has been a struggle sometimes to keep my idealism, I have never given up hope for a better world. To this day, I remain a peacemonger and a pacifist.

Thoreau was primarily a writer, not an activist per se, but that one night of protest he spent in jail -- and what he wrote about it -- eventually sparked a whole resistance movement that continues today. Single acts of heroism have a way of reverberating down through the years. Who knows what the ripple effect will be, and how many lives will eventually be touched, through one person's willingness to break ranks and heed the voice of conscience? And would you be willing to do it?

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December 30, 2014: I recently ran across this interesting article, Torah and Thoreau, by Joseph Bornstein, who describes it as his "enthralling discovery that Henry David Thoreau’s ideas have their roots in Jewish consciousness."  Thoreau was not Jewish, of course.  He was a Transcendentalist.  But Bornstein does provide a lot of parallels between Thoreau's life and philosophy and Jewish thought.  A good read.