This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Flying Off the Handle*

On the third day of the world's existence, the Torah tells us (Genesis 1:12) that the plant world was created, producing a brilliant variety flowers, grasses and trees.

In pondering the significance of this event, a legend in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 5:9) describes how the initial tranquility of the trees was eventually brought to an end with the discovery of iron.

Those hitherto invulnerable trees now shuddered at the prospect of being felled by metal axe-blades. Upon hearing their laments, the iron retorted unsympathetically: "Why are you trembling? As long as you don't provide the wood for the axes' handles, you will remain immune from harm."

I am sure that many readers will recognize that this midrashic fable is substantially identical to one that appears in the numerous ancient collections of "Aesop's Fables."

Some editions of the story introduce a human character, a wily woodsman who dupes the guileless trees into offering him a small branch. Too late do they come to the realization that they have foolishly sealed their own doom.

A slightly different spin on the story has the trees knowingly consent to give up an inconsequential young ash tree to be used as the handle for the woodsman's axe. After watching the instrument wreak its havoc on the loftiest and noblest trees of the forest, a wise old oak sums up the powerful moral lesson of their situation: Abandoning the rights of the weak is the first step on the path to universal tyranny.

Some versions of the story have the trees complaining to Zeus about their defenselessness against axe-wielding humans. However, the king of Olympus dismisses them, reminding them that they themselves are to blame for their fate, because wood is so useful, and because they chose to contribute the handles for the axes.

Underlying all the disparities in their literary formulations are some unmistakable, though infuriating, lessons: We must often bear the responsibility for contributing to our own ruin. And how ludicrous it when people give their enemies the means of destroying them!

Evidently, Aesop was not the earliest author to make use of the parable of the axe and the trees. A similar message is included among the "Proverbs of Ahikar," an Assyrian anthology of wisdom teachings that enjoyed immense popularity in the ancient world, and which has survived in several translated versions. Copies of Ahikar's book were found in the fifth-century B.C.E. archive of the Jewish military garrison in Elephantine, Egypt; and he is mentioned in the Jewish book of Tobit that is included among the non-canonical Apocrypha. It is likely that Aesop derived several of his famous fables from the Ahikar collections.

Ahikar's version of the axe-handle proverb reads as follows: "My son, you seem to me like a tree who said to the wood-choppers: 'If you did not hold something from me in your hand, you would be unable to fell me.'"

The ancient rabbis appear to have been quite familiar with the Aesop literature, and more than a dozen of his fables are cited or alluded to in the pages of the Talmud and Midrash. However, the Jewish sages often used the fables or proverbs in novel and unexpected ways.

The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin. 39b) employed the story of the axe-handle in order to illustrate a Jewish tradition that the biblical prophet Obadiah, whose brief book contains oracles about the impending fall of Edom, was identical with Obadiah the Edomite, a convert to Judaism who is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible as the supervisor of King Ahab's household.

Ephraim Maksha'ah, a disciple of Rabbi Meir, noted the irony of this situation, of a former Edomite being instrumental in the destruction of his former nation. To exemplify his point, he cited a popular maxim: "As the saying goes: From the forest itself comes the axe."

In his commentary to the passage, Rashi astutely explained that Ephraim's proverb was referring to the wood that is fashioned into the axe-handle.

The same proverb was invoked in a similar context by Rabbi Yohanan, citing Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai. He utilized it to illustrate the peculiar position of King David, a descendant of the Moabite convert Ruth, who went on to wage a victorious campaign against the Moabites.

(Another sage Rav Dimi, chose a different, cruder analogy to illustrate the same point: The putrification of a joint of meat begins from within.)

Going beyond the ironic and cautionary insights that were suggested by previous commentators, the Maharal of Prague gave a down-to-earth psychological explanation of the fable's meaning.

He observed that people are by nature more likely to take an active interest in matters to which they have a strong personal connection. Accordingly, even after Obadiah's conversion to Judaism, his Edomite origins led him to place an exceptional emphasis on the affairs of his former homeland. This led him to channel his prophetic messages towards condemnations of Edom and forecasts of its ultimate fall.

The same principle, says the Maharal, can be adduced to explain Rabbi Yohanan's usage of the proverb: "From the forest itself comes the axe." He was observing that David's commitment to waging a military campaign against Moab was intensified by the circumstances of his own Moabite ancestry; whereas a native-born Israelite would not have felt a comparable urgency about the matter.

There are undoubtedly many valuable lessons to be derived from our simple allegory of the wooden axe-handle.

When applied to the experiences of individuals, the parable reminds us that much of the suffering that we undergo in our lives is, at least in part, of our own making.

Viewed from the perspective of politics or communal interaction, the fable can instruct us about the influence of personal agendas on national policies; or about the need for vigilance in preventing internal weaknesses that could be exploited by our enemies.

In particular, it reminds us that divisions and injustices in a community will ultimately render us more vulnerable to external threats.

It would seem therefore that the most effective way of preserving these assorted metaphoric forests--and the literal ones too, for that matter--is by striving to bury the hatchet.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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