In last week’s post we left our “hero” hanging on to the branch near the top of the well, certainty of death both below and above him. The only question is: When, amidst the dual perils, he has the opportunity to taste the honey, what does he do? Tolstoy says go for the honey—that’s what makes life worth living. Tolstoy himself went through some tough times when the honey no longer tasted sweet, and he couldn’t peel his eyes from the dangers above and below. The Jain version of the parable condemns the person who pays attention to the honey at all, calling it a trivial pleasure that only the unwise would taste.
There’s a famous line from the Jerusalem Talmud ( the less famous (neglected?) cousin of the Babylonian one). Here’s a loose translation: “In the future, each person will have to give an accounting for everything he saw that he didn’t eat.” This is widely understood to mean that, in a sense, God wants us to experience all the (Jewishly permitted) pleasures life has to offer.
The hero in the well, upon walking through the proverbial pearly gates, would immediately be asked whether he tasted the honey. The honey would be understood not as a trivial pleasure, but as an opportunity to utter a blessing over a Divine gift. An opportunity to focus one’s mind and spirit on life’s pleasures and bounties rather than on the pains and scarcities.
At the end of the book of Deuteronomy (Ch.32), Moses gives a poetic rendition of the history of the people of Israel:
He (God) found him (Israel) in a desert region, in an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye…. He set him atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth; He fed him honey from the crag, and oil from the flinty rock.
I see this as a parallel to the Jain parable that Tolstoy retells. Whether as individuals or as nations, the human condition is such that great suffering/danger abounds, but somehow there’s honey available to us.
Lawrence Kushner, in his book Honey from the Rock, interprets this section of Deuteronomy as follows:
For us too the everyday world seems strewn with rocks. We fear that we have been led out into the wilderness to perish…. And then at that moment, from something as mundane as a rock, there glistens a drop of that eternal baby food, honey.