My Rat's Tale
What my rat taught me about joy.
Early one morning, I entered my kitchen and found a persimmon and an apple partly gnawed. Bits of persimmon skin were splattered on my kitchen counter. Horrified and disgusted, I shrieked for my husband. He called the exterminator.
The exterminator verified that it was a rat, not a mouse. He set three rat traps with chocolate, commenting that rats love chocolate. (A chocoholic myself, I pretended not to hear that I have any affinity with repulsive rodents.)
Although I'm always the first one up and the first one to enter the kitchen, the next morning I cowered in our bedroom until my husband went to dispose of the dead rat without my having to see it. Call me a sexist, but it's manifest to me that removing dead rats is a man's job, and all the women I know, even staunch feminists, agree.
Finally my half-asleep, pajama-clad husband dutifully made the rounds of the three traps and reported to me: No rat.
However, another persimmon had been gnawed. And under the dairy sink, I found droppings. The rat had entered the under-sink cabinet from below, through the open space around the drainpipe, and had been feasting on our garbage. I shivered and called the exterminator again.
He moved two of the traps into the cabinet, right next to the drainpipe. The third he left under the refrigerator.
"No rat is that smart."
The next morning, as I tried to recite my morning prayers in my room, with my mind on the squished rat under my kitchen sink, my husband again checked and reported: No rat.
"Let's give it another night," my husband suggested. "No rat is that smart."
The next morning, the kitchen was flooded with an inch of water. The rat, apparently thirsty, had gnawed a hole in the plastic tubing to our water filter. The hole was barely two feet away from the shunned trap under the refrigerator.
I called the exterminator again. He was baffled. He had been catching rats for 27 years with those very same chocolate-baited traps. No rat had ever before eluded him.
This time he came with a pump sprayer filled with rat repellent. We knew the rat was living under the cabinet, in the three-inch space between the cabinet and the floor. First the exterminator put a trap right in front of the hole near the wall that the rat had been using to enter that space. Then he started spraying under the sink, right into the circle around the drainpipe. We waited for the rat to escape out his hole right into the waiting trap.
We waited. And waited. No rat.
Eventually, the exterminator said he had other work to do, and excused himself. My husband went to his Talmud class. I went to my computer, two rooms away, and tried to work. Two hours later, I heard a trap spring.
"Finally," I thought. I waited, cringing by my computer, for my husband to come home and remove the dead rat. When he entered the kitchen, he reported: The trap beside the hole had indeed sprung, but there was no trace of a rat. Somehow the rat had managed to move the trap, thus setting it off, and had scampered to freedom -- somewhere else in the house.
For the next two days, there was no sign of the rat. While our nighttime ritual now included locking our fruit bowl in the oven and the ripening tomatoes in the microwave, I decided to leave one persimmon on the kitchen floor, to determine whether the rat was still with us.
The next morning, I found the persimmon, gnawed, on the floor on the far side of the meat counter. At my wits' end, I called the exterminator for the fourth time -- a record in his long career of eliminating vermin. While we were loathe to cause suffering to any of God's creatures -- even a rat -- and had preferred the traps because they killed quickly, now in desperation I told the exterminator to bring poison.
He came armed with two glue traps and three kinds of poison. He found a large hole a few inches away from the gnawed, schlepped persimmon. Clearly, the rat had found a new home beneath the meat counter. It had only one exit. The exterminator put two packets of poison that take three days to work inside the hole. Then he set the two glue traps outside the hole, so that it would be impossible to exit the hole without getting caught. Then he put fast-acting poison powder on the gnawed persimmon, and placed it on the first glue trap, so that the rat, instead of dying a slow and gruesome death from the glue trap, would eat the poisoned persimmon and die quickly. Just for good measure, in case the rat was hiding elsewhere, he put another poisoned persimmon on the other side of the glue traps. It was a comprehensive, foolproof system.
It didn't work. The next morning my husband reported: No rat, and the persimmons had not been touched.
Incredulous, we stood there staring at our infallible, failed system. Clearly, something uncanny was happening here. Since God runs the world, and all normal means to eliminate this rat had failed, perhaps God was trying to tell us something. But what?
I went to ask Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, a Kabbalist who lives in our neighborhood. Looking straight at me, he declared: "You need a tikkun [spiritual rectification]."
"Me?" I asked, chastened. "What tikkun do I need?"
"What does the rat say in Perek Shira?" Rabbi Sheinberger queried. Perek Shira is an ancient poem, attributed to King David, in which every creature and natural phenomenon, from the sky to the desert, from rivers to lightening, from snails to whales, praises God with a particular Biblical verse which hints at the essence of that creation.
A friend closely following my rat saga had called me that morning with the startling news: In Perek Shira, the rat proclaims, "Kol haneshama tihallel Yah, Halleluyah!-- The entire soul praises God. Hallelujah!" This is the final, and perhaps most exalted, verse in the Book of Psalms. And it is ascribed to the rat!
"Your tikkun is to stop complaining."
I dutifully answered Rabbi Sheinberger: "Kol haneshama tihallel Yah, Halleluyah!"
"The tikkun," he said with authority, "is to stop complaining."
I stared at him as if he had uncovered a secret vice hidden even from me. Complain? Me? I'm no kvetch.
Rabbi Sheinberger continued. "The sages read the verse with slightly different vowels to mean that with every breath you should praise God. Every one of us has received such a wealth of blessings that we should be making a feast of gratitude to God every day. If we don't do that, at the very least we should be praising God with every breath."
I went home, my mind spinning. If I want to get rid of the rat, I need to praise God with every breath and stop complaining? Do I kvetch that much?
That night I removed both glue traps. I left one persimmon laced with the fast-acting poison. In the morning, there was no sign of the rat, and the persimmon was untouched.
As usual, I walked my nine-year-old son partway to school. My son hates this 40-minute walk, which his pediatrician recommends for a variety of reasons. As usual, he stalled, and resisted, and walked at a snail's pace. When my husband returned from synagogue after his morning prayers, I went to greet him with a report about my frustrating morning.
Somewhere between my bedroom and the front door, Rabbi Sheinberger's words flashed through my mind. I realized: This is complaining! I turned my frown into a wide smile, and greeted my husband with an enthusiastic, "Good morning! Isn't it a wonderful morning to be alive? Kol haneshama tihallel Yah, Halleluyah!"
Five minutes later I found the rat, dead behind our refrigerator.
THE PERKS OF DEPRESSION
I did not realize how much I complained. I thought I was simply reporting: my frustrations with the children, how difficult it was to find a parking space, how the new cordless telephone, one week after the warranty expired, stopped working. My newly-installed, post-rat complaint radar, however, detected an incessant habit of framing experiences negatively.
I asked myself, Why? Since how we perceive situations is a choice we make, why would anyone choose misery?
On our Brandeis campus, if you weren't depressed, there was something wrong with you.
The answer is part ego, part culture. In television adventure shows, a character's cleverness/resourcefulness/heroism stands out only in relation to the difficulty of the problem s/he faces. The heroes of "Mission Impossible" were heroes only because their mission was almost impossible.
My ego must have internalized this point early on: If I wanted to be regarded as clever/resourceful/heroic, I was compelled to emphasize the difficulty of the situation facing me. After all, how would my husband know what an expert mother I am if I didn't apprise him of the childrearing calamities I had to deal with today? How would my friend know what a forbearing and saintly person I am if I didn't tell her the challenges I face from my neighbor?
In addition, my cultural indoctrination insists that people who always smile are somehow shallow. Don't they keep up with current events -- with current wars, famines, and epidemics? What could they possibly be happy about?
As a college student in the sixties, studying melancholic poets from Baudelaire to T.S. Eliot, I somehow assimilated the notion that people who are depressed are deep. In fact, on our Brandeis campus, if you weren't depressed, there was something wrong with you.
JOY AND JUDAISM
Judaism has a diametrically opposite approach. Many think that the Jewish emphasis on joy dates back to the 18th century advent of Hasidism. In fact, the Torah itself makes a startling pronouncement. After prophesizing terrible punishments that the Jewish people will have to endure, the Torah proclaims that all this will come upon us "because you did not serve God, your Lord, with joy…" [Deut.28:47]
Why should the Torah consider the greatest detriment to divine service to be sadness rather than sin?
If a Jew is connecting to God through the mitzvot, the result, by definition, will be joy.
The Jewish definition of joy is: connection and union, specifically the connection and union of opposites, such as male and female, heaven and earth, Divine and human [see Alei Shur p. 325). If a Jew is connecting to God through the mitzvot, the result, by definition, will be joy. Conversely, if there is no joy, there is no real connection.
Imagine that your beloved surprises you with a getaway to a paradisiacal place. Brightly colored parrots are squawking in the palm trees. A crimson sun is setting into a crystal blue ocean. Your beloved presents you with a bouquet of roses -- no, orchids! Then s/he places down before you a basket filled with ripe fruit: pineapples, mangoes, papayas, figs. Sitting atop the fruit is a large box of Belgium chocolates. (Don't forget, this is my fantasy!) Let's say that you sat there morosely complaining because s/he didn't serve you steak. What does that indicate about the relationship?
But this is precisely the world God has conjured up for us! Sunsets and orchids and daisies and mountains and butterflies and parrots and kittens and mangoes and strawberries and, yes, cocoa beans! Every complaint about what we don't have is a slap in the Divine face, a failure of perception more grievous than any failure of action. If we don't perceive, from moment to moment, how much God loves us and how much He is giving us as an expression of that love, then we are relinquishing the relationship with Him for which purpose, according to Judaism, He created the world.
LEARNING TO PRAISE GOD
My post-rat life has a different hue; somber tones have given way to bright splashes of color. Now when people ask me how I am, I reply, "Terrific!" and mean it, without worrying if they'll think I'm shallow or vacuous. I'm not embarrassed to be happy.
Praising God with every breath is a prescription not only against rat infestation, but against every sort of sadness. The process has four steps:
- Look for the good in the thing or situation facing you. Set your mind to noticing the details.
- Recognize that everything comes from God, who animates the entire creation -- every muscle, neural impulse, and atom -- at every millisecond.
- Recognize that God has given this thing or situation specifically to you, because He loves you --individually. Experience the connection.
- Connection breeds joy. Feel it and thank God!
A contemporary sage recommends the following exercise: Before you eat a fruit, hold the fruit in your hand and contemplate the process God animated in order for you to have that particular fruit. For example, hold a tangerine in your hand, and reflect on how from a tiny tangerine seed, a sapling grew. Over a span of years, God provided lots of sunshine and water so that the sapling would grow into a tree.
Then, last spring, hundreds of flowers -- with an intoxicating fragrance -- bloomed on the tree. Gradually the flowers fell away and a tiny, green fruit emerged. Over a period of eight months, the fruit grew larger and larger. Then it turned a bright orange color.
Then someone picked it, and packed it, and shipped it to the store where you bought it. And God was behind this whole process, just to present you with this tangerine. Then say the blessing, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree." Then, with your eyes closed, bite into a section of tangerine. Relish its sweetness, its texture, its juiciness, its vitamin C (coming just when you need it in winter), and the way each tiny module of juice is individually packaged. Then relish God's love for you that is expressed in this gift.
After two weeks of practicing this exercise, I'm experiencing what the psalmist meant by, "Taste and see how good is God." Every bunch of grapes has become like the fancy box of candy my husband gives me on our anniversary -- a personal expression of tremendous love and caring. The world's greatest joy -- the joy of being in a relationship with a loving God -- is never further away than my fruit bowl.
THE PREPOSTEROUS QUESTION
Years ago, I took a small group of women to get blessings from the tzaddik Rabbi Emanuel Cohen.* While the first woman met privately with the tzaddik, the rest of us sat in the living room with his wife, Rebbetzin Devorah Cohen [See Holywoman] Rebbetzin Devorah was a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of 20, had lost her entire family in Auschwitz. She never had any children, had lived in abject poverty all her life, and was never without a smile.
The women must have looked glum, because Rebbetzin Devorah encouraged them saying, "Don't worry. Each of you will receive the blessing you came for."
One woman, who was having marital problems, asked: "Yes, but how can we be happy while we're waiting for the blessing to materialize?"
Rebbetzin Devorah looked shocked. "How can you be happy?" she asked incredulously. "How can you not be happy? You have eyes and they see. You have ears and they hear. You have legs and they take you where you want to go. How can you not be happy?"
It took 12 years for me to internalize Rebbetzin Devorah's recipe for happiness. Catching on to the secret of happiness was even harder than catching a rat.
*This name is a pseudonym, to protect the anonymity of the tzaddikim.