Annoyance and Opportunity

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The mosquitoes are gone, thank G-d.

Not only the determined one who pestered me one summer morning in shul during davening, but all of her friends and relatives too. Gone for the fall, winter and spring. And if they all decide to take a collective summer vacation somewhere far away next July, I’ll pay their airfare. Count me among cold-weather aficionados; I’m averse to heat, humidity, and—especially—mosquitoes. Not only are their bite-sites unsightly and itchy, but some of the species carry dangerous diseases. Okay, maybe not those in these parts, but still.

About that one in shul. I imagined her sent by the soton to prevent my concentration. She hovered before me and I shooed her away. She returned and I shooed some more. I would happily have dispatched her to the big standing water pool in the sky but it somehow felt wrong to deliver a fatal blow, even to a mere insect, in my tallis and tefillin.

I don’t claim to have the focus one is ideally supposed to have during prayer. My mind wanders and too much of what I recite evidences more rote than reflection. But I do try to concentrate, especially on the parts of the service that require special attention: Kri’as Sh’ma, the Amida, or silent prayer (especially its first bracha), and Ashrei. The Talmud singles out one verse in Ashrei for special concentration: Pose’ach es yadecha…“You open Your hand and provide the will (needs) of all living things.” I always pause there to feel gratitude for having food on the table and walls and a roof to keep the elements out.

That morning, as I said that verse, I thought of how Hashem provides even the most rudimentary level of the life-pyramid, the plant kingdom, with its needs. Mere days earlier, on a hike with my wife in upstate New York, I had spied a truly strange plant. It was only two or three inches tall, and both its stem and the tulip-like flower at its head were entirely, strikingly white. How, I wondered when I stooped down to examine it, did it get the energy to fuel its little life? Plants generally rely on chlorophyll, which is green, to absorb energy from sunlight. Not this organism. Intrigued, when we returned home, I did some research and discovered that I had come across the rare monotropa uniflora, also known as the Ghost Plant, a perennial native to parts of Asia, North America and northern South America.

It apparently generates energy in a complex way, by hosting certain fungi that are, in turn, symbiotic with trees—meaning that the little white plant gets its fuel second-hand and “refined,” from the fungi, which in turn received it from photosynthetic trees.

“Provide the needs of every living thing” indeed, I pondered that morning, marveling how fitting a niche-organism monotropa was to have in my mind when those words were on my lips.

But the soton wouldn’t have it. While I tried to conjure the image of the strange white plant and think about the Divine blessing of its ability to absorb recycled sunlight, the posuk of Pose’ach was interrupted by the high pitched whine of the blood-sucker near my ear, heading west toward my nose. More shooing, more hovering, more shooing.

I realized that concentration in tefilla isn’t necessarily supposed to be easy. Why should it be any less subject to obstacles than any other valuable endeavor? Still, though, I wished that this bug would just stop bugging me already, and let me focus on important words.

Somehow, and with no small amount of embarrassment, it was only after davening that it occurred to me that my aerial adversary, trying her best to find a place on me to land, puncture my skin with her thin proboscis, and relieve me of some of my blood was only trying herself to partake of what G-d had provided in the world for her sustenance—or, more biologically precise, the sustenance of the young she carried.

She had in fact been the perfect boon for contemplating the verse of “You open Your hands…” In my annoyance, I had missed an opportunity.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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