Torah poems for this week's portion, Yitro
On caring for the home care workers who care for us

A gorgeous teaching for this week: on Honi the circle-drawer

One of the stories we read at Tu BiShvat (the New Year of the Trees -- this Wednesday) is the tale of Honi ha-Magel, Honi the Circle-Drawer. Honi was a Jewish miracle worker during the first century before the Common Era, known for his ability to bring rain.

It's a fascinating story. The version we tell at our Tu BiShvat table, and the version I will teach to our Hebrew school kids next weekend, is only the kernel at the heart of the story -- the part having to do with planting trees for future generations. But the whole story is worth reading. Here's the story as it appears in Talmud; I've italicized the section we typically tell at Tu BiShvat, but I hope you'll read all four paragraphs.

Rabbi Yohanan said: "This righteous man [Honi] was troubled throughout the whole of his life concerning the meaning of the verse, 'A Song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.' [Honi asked] Is it possible for seventy years to be like a dream? How could anyone sleep for seventy years?"

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi then further asked him: "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied: "I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children."

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, "Are you the man who planted the tree?" The man replied: "I am his grand-son." Thereupon Honi exclaimed: "It is clear that I have slept for seventy years." He then caught sight of his ass which had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. There he inquired, "Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?" The people answered him, "His son is no more, but his grandson is still living." Thereupon he said to them: "I am Honi the Circle-Drawer," but no one would believe him.

He then repaired to the beit ha-midrash [study hall] and there he overheard the scholars say, "The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer,”"for whenever he came to the beit ha-midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out, "I am he!"  But the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy, and he died. Raba said: "Hence the saying, 'Either companionship or death.'"

That's from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta'anit, page 23a. It's a bit mysterious, isn't it? The story raises more questions than it answers. First there's the oddity of Honi sleeping for 70 years, a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle. But how does the story flow from the initial quote from Psalms, "When God brought us back to Zion we were as dreamers"? And what can we make of the way this story ends? Everyone likes the theme of planting for our children, and with good reason, but there's far more going on here than just that.

Allow me to recommend a terrific commentary on this Talmudic tale. The essay is called The Dream of Exile: A Rereading of Honi the Circle-Drawer, [pdf] and it's by Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who serves Bais Abraham congregation in St. Louis. R' Shafner explores the parallels between sleep and exile, the value one can find in journeying, the importance of having dreams for the future, what it means to be a luminary for (and within) one's own generation or moment in time, the similarities between Honi and Moses, and the power of childlike prayer. Here's a taste:

Honi discovers that even if it were possible to eliminate exile and jump to the time of redemption, the price he must pay is the sacrifice of himself, of his own lifetime. One cannot go to a different time and still be oneself. We must be who we are, suggests this story in the Talmud, we each have our role in the universe. Whether to plant or to reap, to dream or to wake, to be in exile or to be redeemed, it is of no matter; one state is not less valuable than another, and both are interdependent. Being satisfied where one is, even if that means living in a state of unredeemed expectation, is as worthwhile as being redeemed, at least according to the carob tree planter...

This is beautiful stuff, and it illumines the story of Honi for me in new ways. I particularly love R' Shafner's assertion that Honi is a kind of mystic; he is like a child in his state of natural, unmediated closeness with God. Read on:

Part of Honi’s inability to comprehend the preparatory exilic state is that he is beyond it. In exile the Divine is mostly hidden and so we do not see our prayers immediately answered. But for Honi, there is immediate gratification. For him God is not in hiding, He is revealed to Honi and close to him like a parent. Honi is not bound by the limitations of the veiled physical universe. Though this Divine awareness is the source of his greatness, it also prevents him from relating to its opposite, exile — our people’s exile, its value and necessity. Honi’s despair in the face of exile/planting/dreaming results from his inability to fathom, and therefore experience, distance from the Divine.

The whole essay is very worth reading. Take a look.

For me, the most poignant part of the story of Honi is its ending. He is fundamentally displaced; the scholars of the future don't believe Honi's identity, and he becomes so inconsolable that he asks God for mercy -- which is to say, for death. On the basis of this, Raba teaches us that in Jewish tradition, companionship -- hevruta, friendship in which we learn with and from one another -- is so important that without it, one might die. That's a powerful teaching at any time of year.

We harvest from trees planted before we were born; we plant trees so that our children will have something to harvest after we are gone. This is both a literal and a metaphorical/spiritual truth. And this planting and harvesting connects us across the generations: as my grandparents planted seeds which bear fruit in my adult choices, I plant seeds for the grandchildren, and the students-of-my-students, who I may never know. But as important as these vertical intergenerational connections are, we also depend on horizontal connections in our own lifetimes. Our beloved friends, our study partners (both in Torah terms and in life-terms), keep us from dissociating from our lives as Honi ultimately did.

At this season of Tu BiShvat, may we be nourished by our deep roots; may we plant for our descendants, paying the blessing forward as it was given to us; and may we be blessed to experience the sustenance of friendship and hevreschaft, keeping us grounded in the here-and-now.