Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Why do we say that a difficult situation is “just the pits?” I’ve never really known if it refers to material pits — as in all we’re getting just the pits and not the cherries, or if it’s about a deep hole. Either way, it’s no good place to be.
Of course, pits figure largely in Jewish tradition. Korach was cast down into one, and Joseph was dropped into one. Daniel shared a sleepless night in one in the company of some hungry lions. The psalmists go on and on about them. And right now, in the midst of the social chaos we are facing, it may feel like we are in a pit full of pits. Our world seems to be a tipped off its axis — and we may find ourselves working hard to shake off the feeling of powerlessness to effect any positive change — and the near pit of despair.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am pretty done with negative and even shaming approaches to problem-solving, so I offer you a little story about being in a pit— and rising out of it again. I don’t recall where it comes from, but I am grateful to the author.
Once, a farmer’s donkey fell into a well. The poor donkey cried piteously for hours as the farmer considered what to do. At his wit’s end, he decided the donkey was too old to be useful, and the well was dry and needed to be sealed anyway, so it was probably best not to try to rescue the poor creature. The farmer asked his neighbors to come and help him fill in the well, donkey and all. Everyone grabbed a shovel and began to throw dirt into the well.
When the donkey realized what was happening, she cried even louder than before! Then, to everyone’s surprise, she became quiet. A few shovelfuls later, the farmer leaned over the edge of the well to see what was happening, and was astonished: As each shovelful of dirt hit the donkey’s back, she shook it off and took a step up, higher and higher, until she, to the amazement of all, emerged from the hole, shook herself once more, and trotted off.
The story makes us smile because we are rooting for the donkey and sympathetic to her plight. We cheer for her as she suffers, surveys her situation, draws on her donkey-wisdom, and frees herself from what appears to be a hopeless situation. We probably don’t have such tender feelings for the farmer and his friends, though
The farmer had only his own limited point of view and was totally unprepared to solve this moral conundrum, so he gave up and tried to cover up the entire situation as if it didn’t exist. It’s easier that way. Sort of.
The farmer’s friends, who were more removed from the situation, had little incentive to seek a solution to a troubling thing that was right before their eyes, so it was easy for them to join in with the farmer. Sort of.
It was the donkey, who was really suffering in anguish, who found her way out. That is, she assessed her situation and her strengths and took matters into her own hands. Sort of…
But I am sure you have already realized there is a deep irony in the story— the donkey actually needed the farmer and his friends to continue shoveling. We can extrapolate here, that in the midst of a deep and difficult challenge the very troubles we face can be the catalyst for our creative problem-solving— and the antidote to the pit itself. First, we need to cease our braying in our perceived helplessness, assess the situation in which we see ourselves and our society, claim our personal agency and power, and take one step at a time.