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Friday, January 05, 2007

God exists, but...

The finest headline ever written appeared in the Forward in September, 1998:

"'God Exists, But He's Very Small,' Insists a Belarussian Beekeeper."

Is that not the best thing you have ever read? Not just for the sheer droll theological absurdity of it, though if you are a lover of the theological absurd -- and, oh, I am -- it does not come any finer than this. The way "very small" melds with "beekeeper," so that you almost can't help yourself from thinking of the Deity as a small, angry bumblebee buzzing? That -- dayenu! -- would have been enough. But then there is the sound of it! The short, choppy syllables at the beginning, followed by the glorious mouthful that is "Belarussian beekeeper." Is it possible to say to yourself, "Belarussian beekeeper," even once, without becoming positively giddy from the syllablification of this, our unendingly particular world? (If you can say it without eliciting even a trace of giddiness, then what are you doing here? There are plenty of other cute kids on teh internets, for pity's sake.) I honestly think I would die with a smile on my face if someone bent over my ear in my last moment on earth and whispered, "Belarussian beekeeper." Belarussian beekeeper. How could I not smile?

But this headline, this never-to-be-equalled headline, concealed beneath it far more than just syllablically pleasing drollery. The article that followed was a long profile of an elderly man, the last Jew in the Belarussian village of Amdur. He was drafted into the army at the beginning of World War II, and spent the war at the front, returning to find that in his absence all the Jews of Amdur had been slaughtered.

No summary of this story could equal the beekeeper's own words:
"Well, the day I returned in 1946, I came here [Amdur's Jewish cemetery] to say Kaddish, and saw that local peasants were pasturing their cows among the gravestones as if it were just another field, as if there had never been any Jews here. I was still in uniform. I still had my army-issued rifle. Overcome with anger, I shot the three cows in my line of sight. The police arrested me. They fined me and let me go. To tell you the truth, they respected what I had done, although they had to follow the law."

Shooting the three cows did not, however, deter local peasants from continuing to graze their cattle at the old Jewish cemetery.

"Despite my protests, they continued. Until 1948. Yes, it's hard to believe that it was 50 years ago. What happened in 1948? There was a violent thunderstorm, the most ferocious that anyone could remember. Twelve cows were struck dead by lightning, right over there,' he recalls, pointing to a ridge near the center of the cemetery.

"But no other cow was struck in all of Amdur," he says, and, after a brief pause, comes to the stark ending of the last Jewish story of Amdur.

"The peasants took the death of the 12 cows as a sign from God. The communists were in power, of course, but the peasants never believed in any of that. Let me tell you the truth. We observed traditions in my family, but I was no great believer.

"But when the 12 cows were struck, I knew there was a God. Not a great God, but a very little God. A great God would have saved the Jews of Amdur. All God could do, after it was all over and done with, was strike 12 cows who were defiling our cemetery. But after that, I was sure at least that he exists."

The world is full up of tragedies, and more pile on every day. The epic ones that sweep away whole generations, cities, nations. The minute ones, single souls lost one by one. I try not to borrow other people's tragedies, when I can help it. There are too many of them, for one, far too many; and the act of soaking them up seems to me one of almost criminal arrogance. Do you really think that you must take on more sorrow than is already to be given to you in this life? Everyone you love will die, sooner or later. Is that not enough?

It is. Of course it is. But sometimes there is a tragedy that shakes me no matter how hard I try to disown it. Sometimes, of all the tragedies of the world, there is one that reminds me of the truth I find hardest to accept: the best people -- the ones who make the world a place in which we delight to live -- have no talisman that protects them against evil or the hard hand of fate.

And then I find that the only comfort I can muster -- and it is, somehow, some very slight comfort -- are the words of that Belarussian beekeeper: "God Exists, But He's Very Small.'


(yes, this is for helen.)

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