9 February 2009
I knew there was a reason I procrastinated on writing this post. After an all-too-dry Tu Bishvat here in Jerusalem, I woke this morning to find that it had rained, none too soon for our sun-parched country. Pollsters and campaigners stand with their umbrellas here on Election Day, while the country observes a yom shabbaton (what Brits call a bank holiday) to allow everyone to vote. And I reread with fascination the story that every Israeli child knows: Honi Ha-Ma’agel (Honi the Circle Maker).
At first read, the two stories about Honi seem to have little to do with each other. In the first anecdote (2:1:6), Honi is the favored child of the king, the magician with the foolproof magic that brings rain when it’s most needed. The community calls on Honi when they need his special talents, whether bringing copious quantities of rain in the time of drought or stopping the deluge before it becomes a flood. His talent is both praised and disdained, as when Shimon ben Shetach admits that Honi would be excommunicated for his magic, were he not so clearly in God’s good graces. This Honi is articulate, arrogant, both an integral part of his community and an outlier among them.
The second story (2:1:7) gives us an entirely different image of this magical figure. After berating an old man for planting a carob tree that he’ll never live to see bloom, Honi falls into the quintessential Rip Van Winkle sleep, a seeming punishment for his cynicism. While the version of this story in Tu Bishvat sedarim often ends with his seeing the blooming tree, the story’s coda strikes me as much more poignant. Honi returns to his village seventy years hence to find his memory alive but his physical self nearly a specter, unrecognized and unappreciated by his family and by his comrades. The punchline of the story—“the fellowship of men or the fellowship of death”—is oft-quoted as a metaphorical platitude about forming community, but its meaning is literal here: Honi dies when he is superfluous, unknown to those who had found him so necessary before.
Honi’s particular talent is in bringing rain, causing a natural process to happen in a supernatural way. He is a figure beyond normal mortal constraints: God listens to his requests and changes the ways of the universe. It is fitting that Honi’s death comes as a consequence of his scoffing at the natural world: why plant a tree if you’ll not live to see it bloom? The Divine Source blesses Honi here, too, with the ability to move beyond the natural world, to outlive the people who are nourished by the rain he brings. But once he’s outlived them, he realizes that while his body may function beyond mortal bounds, his soul still craves this world of mortal community.
Living in Israel during this season of drought, I am struck again and again by how interdependent we are in our usage of water and other natural resources. While we may rely on the Holy One to bring us rain—and we’ve all been praying for it—we also know that our wasting of water and our emissions of greenhouse gases are contributing to our dire situation. And on this Election Day of hope and awe, I pray that we’re able to elect a government who will realize all the ways we are interconnected and not just appeal to divine laws to justify its rule. It rained today in Jerusalem: maybe God’s looking out for us indeed.