Honi Lessons

As we get older, we collect a veritable repository of stories. We carry memories: our own as well as those of our family and friends. We carry plots from the books and articles we’ve read and the movies and shows we’ve eagerly watched, and the lessons taught to us in classrooms and waiting in line at Starbucks (remember waiting in line?).

Over time it becomes more difficult to remember all of these stories as we initially absorbed them. Plotlines get twisted and garbled and half-forgotten. It is so frustrating! We conflate themes, combine different stories that have no connection.

Sometimes a story reemerges. Something tickles a corner of the hippocampus, that area of the brain where story files are kept. Parenthetically, I imagine this region of the brain resembles a library filled with papers and open books everywhere…

A tale came knocking on my door of consciousness. I remember hearing it for the first time about 55 years ago in Hebrew School. It’s about a guy named Honi the Circle Maker. How he got his name is another story altogether. Suffice to say, he was known as a bright, pious, impatient man.
I was so happy for its return! What motivated my unconscious to send it out is anybody’s guess; that’s why they call it the Unconscious. But I think I know how it got here… but first, the story.

One day, Honi saw an old man carrying a shovel in one hand, and a tiny sapling in the other. Honi asked him, “Hey! What are you planting?” The man replied, “This is a carob tree.” Honi said incredulously, “Wait – doesn’t a carob tree take a really long time to bear fruit?” “Why yes”, the old man said, “It will take seventy years for it to give fruit.” At which point Honi scratched his head and said, “So why bother? You’ll never live to enjoy it! What a waste of time!”

The old man thrust the shovel into the loamy soil; it made that uniquely satisfying sound shovels make at work. As he continued to dig the hole he said, “When I was a young boy, I ate the fruit from the carob tree that my grandfather had planted. Now I am planting a carob tree for my grandchildren. It’s not about me; it’s about us.”

On the most straightforward level, this story is a stark example of delayed gratification. It’s the realistic assessment of what one can have and what one must wait for. Things don’t just happen. They take planning and fortitude. It means sometimes we have to do without.

Up till now, we’ve been living in a world that touts instant gratification as the norm. You want strawberries in January – poof! – there they are on the shelf! You want food from a restaurant in New York? No problem; we’ll send it right out. You can get almost anything you want, any time.

And right now, for almost everyone, we are suffering from delayed gratification. We can’t have what we want right now. We don’t have access to the people, places, and things that are most significant to us.

I want out right now! I want it to be all better! Only it’s not, and the only people wise enough to offer dependable advice are epidemiologists, and they’re saying, “It’s not a good idea to move forward as if all is well, because it’s not.” So we have to wait. Behaving like little boys with toy guns having tantrums because the babysitter said they can’t go outside is not helpful. It’s stupid and tragic. And it’s dangerous to every vulnerable citizen. Delayed gratification is hard; it’s a sign of maturity and empathy. But Honi doesn’t understand.

The other lesson I derive from this deeply planted story is that we are not responsible only for ourselves. What we do in the world must be about others and not just for ourselves. Unborn generations depend on us.
The old man in the story reminds Honi that this is how Jewish life works. We sustain ourselves – and we plant the seeds for the future. We care for ourselves – and we protect the interests of the next generations.

Belonging to a temple is not just for our own children’s Hebrew school or B’nei Mitzvah or baby naming. It’s to provide a place for the next generations, a point in space that serves as the locus of community and wholeness – a place with a reputation and a philosophy that is progressive – and dependably present.

My hippocampus must have sent this story to my frontal cortex to help strengthen my resolve in the work we do and the promises we make. Honi learns a lesson, and we do, too. The best things in life are those that we create, nurture, and love. It’s delayed gratification, for sure. But in the end, those things are worth waiting for – they always are. We are not put here just for ourselves – we are part of a chain, a living chain of tradition and history. We must never forget that planting those trees for the future is our obligation. It’s not about me; it’s about us.
Shabbat Shalom

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