How Do Stories from our Heritage Shape our Values?
Those who follow the cycle of Torah reading know that Beresheet/Genesis and the first part of Shemot/Exodus are largely stories, from Creation through the experiences of our Ancestors, and moving forward in the formation of our people: B’nai Yisrael, the People of Israel.
Then, with the emancipation of our people from slavery in Egypt comes the giving of laws and values by which to live: the Giving of the Ten Commandments and Torah at Mt. Sinai.
It begins with stories that shape and reflect the development of values which are then codified in the presentation of laws and rules by which to live.
Even as Judaism developed as a legal system with the Talmud/Oral Law becoming partner to the Torah/Hebrew Bible, the story dimension continued as companion to the rules and regulations governing this system for creating society in partnership with God.
One such story that is applicable to our hopes that El Nino will end the years long drought we are in talks of a unique Jewish rainmaker back in the first century BCE. This man was also reputed to be a Jewish Rip Van Winkle, known to have planted a carob tree and then napped 70 years while it grew to its maturity. I am referring to Honi HaMeagel, Honi the Circle Drawer. The story goes that Israel was in severe drought and the people turned to Honi, reputed to be a miracle worker and doer of countless good deeds. Quoting from Jewish Heritage Online reflecting teachings from the Oral Law:
“The people sent for Honi the Circle-Maker. He prayed, but still no rains came. Then he drew a circle in the dust and stood in the middle of it. Raising his hands to heaven, he vowed, “God, I will not move from this circle until You send rain!”
Immediately a few drops fell, hissing as they struck the hot white stones. But the people complained to Honi, “This is but a poor excuse for rain, only enough to release you from your vow.
So Honi turned back to heaven and cried, “Not for this trifling drizzle did I ask, but for enough rain to fill wells, cisterns, and ditches!
Then the heavens opened up and poured down rain in buckets, each drop big enough to fill a soup ladle. The wells and the cisterns overflowed, and the wadis flooded the desert. The people of Jerusalem ran for safety to the Temple Mount
“Honi!” they cried. “Save us! Or we will all be destroyed like the generation of the Flood! Stop the rains!”
Honi said to them, “I was glad to ask God to end your misery, but how can I ask for an end to your blessing?”
The people pleaded with him, and he finally agreed to pray for the rain to stop. “Bring me an offering of thanksgiving,” he told them, and they did.
Then Honi said to God, “This people that You brought out of Egypt can take neither too much evil nor too much good. Please give them what they ask so that they may be happy.”
So God sent a strong wind that blew away the fierce rains, and the people gathered mushrooms and truffles on the Temple Mount.”
What is noteworthy about this story that took place in the month of Adar at the end of the rainy season was Honi’s teaching that it is not a good idea to ask God to stop sending a blessing, which is associated with rainfall. To do so, the people needed to exchange one blessing for another i.e. a Thanksgiving offering to God.
The other interesting insight from the story is Honi’s observation that we can take neither too much evil nor too much good. The key to effective living throughout the Judaic system is the pursuit of balance. Even in our prayer for healing we ask God: Heal us and we will be healed; Hoshieynu/Save us, i.e. restore balance to us and we will regain our balance. The whole teshuva process associated with daily living and accentuated on Yom Kippur is turning in the direction of good and repair, i.e. to restore balance to our lives.
So, as we brace ourselves for what may await with El Nino, may the rains bring welcome relief with minimal negative impact from flooding and other consequences of overwhelming storms, and may the story of Honi the Circle Drawer remind us to cherish our life experiences, learning lessons and values from the so-called bad, as well as the good.
By the way, an interesting postscript to this story is the concern about how free Honi felt to pressure God. “Shimon ben Shetakh, head of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, said to Honi, “I should excommunicate you for your audacity, but how can I, since you’re Honi! God coddles you as a father does his young child.” How nice to have a Honi to turn to when the need arises!