Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lesson of the Ibis: How to Live Life



            Leaving the house for work this morning, I noticed a trio of American White Ibises—I did not know that was what they were, but a later online search revealed them as such (Eudocimus albus). They are a pure, beautiful white color, with bright-orange beaks and long legs. They spend their lives poking their curved beaks into the grass, hunting for bugs, in the course of which foraging they also aerate the soil, benefiting all of us.
            I was mind-filled with my typical day’s events: rush to the Pike, enter stream of traffic, put on NPR, perhaps the Classical station; speak to the Dean—will she be available? Will that student get in his paper on time? But the little group took away my attention. They were going about their business in a methodical way, walking in line, like three lean, determined-but-leisurely, English Country Gentlemen out for a walk; what we call in Yiddish, ah shpatzir—a stroll. It was, nonetheless, a serious business, and they had no time to look about, neither at sky nor trees.
Having completed their in-depth examination of this quadrant of earth, they, without turning, nodding or acknowledging the presence of their fellows, spread their glorious wings and sailed off into the warmish air in a leisurely fashion, one after the other, like a flight of gulls. But they appeared far more sophisticated and cultured than gulls: they remained silent, and never begged a crumb of me; indeed, I was not part of their world. They are particular to our Florida, and I have grown to love their concentration, their single-mindedness, and their quietly efficient manner of going about their work and their lives.
Ibises have a long and illustrious past in their relationship with humanity. The Egyptian ibis-god, Thoth, was a moon-god—the curved beak put the Egyptians in mind of the crescent moon. His worshipers considered him to have been the very heart and mind of the Creator-god, Ra, the Sun-god, and, as that Divine Voice, uttered the words which created every being and object in the universe, as well as the laws which govern that existence, including the courses of the sun, moon, and stars.
He was also the inventor of writing, and the solemn and irreplaceable recorder of judgments about the dead, as author of that seminal Egyptian text, Per-t Em Hru, The Book of the Dead (Budge). Besides writing and the alphabet, Thoth invented mathematics, drawing, design, and the arts, in his role as “scribe of the Great Company of the Gods” (quoted in Budge); indeed, he functioned as a sort of Recording Angel, perhaps parallel to our Rosh Hashana Book of Life—was there some Mosaic borrowing here? In the world of the Dead, Thoth became more powerful than even Osiris, who acknowledged him as an adviser; he was also to function as Defense Attorney for the Egyptian Dead on their Day of Judgment.
As the little, white-winged trio flew off, dipping beneath the palm trees to continue their patient search for grubs and bugs, I considered also their patron-god Thoth’s role as Hermes, Greek messenger of the gods, even as Hermes Trismegistus, who conveyed knowledge of ethics and life’s mysteries to a searching humanity. Did my Jewish God, in His role as Hashgacha P’rateet—Divine Providence—plan for me to encounter these little messengers this morning—perhaps to remind me that my own troubles do not amount to so much, and that, with the help of my God, Adonai Eloheem be His Name, both I and my fellow Jews will overcome; indeed, all of humanity, speaking in the various Names of their own deities (or no deities at all; that, too, is their right as thinking and reasoning human beings), will likewise triumph?
No: God was telling me that I can overcome, not alone, but only by working together with others. We are not hermits; we are born to enter into communities of all sorts—whether through business, faith, or good government—and, together, conquer the ignorance, stereotyping, and hatred that threaten to divide us all. Only by reaching out to other people can we, like my little ibis trio, achieve a singleminded peace which will beat back the darkness of closemindedness, terror, and ignorance, and, ultimately, benefit the world. We have no other choice: we, like the ibises, have taken flight.