A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, April 7, 2008

We All Have Our Demons

Something strange about me: my clothing disintegrates. Sometime over the last year I noticed a tear in my shirt. No big deal; mass produced, low quality, money-saver. It happens. Then another was stained. Then another. Then the shirt I wore to my ordination ceremony developed a tear/hole in the chest a week after I bought it. Then my favorite shirt ripped at the button. And now another shirt - not a favorite, but a solid, war-horse shirt I use often - developed a tear/hole in the same place.

There were two possibilities. Bad luck, or sloppiness. Or so I thought. I had let the matter drop, until the Talmud (Berachot 5b) enlightened me as to the source of my troubles:

Aba Binyamin says “If [we were able] to see, no creature could endure on account of demons [that are around us]” [i.e. we would be so frightened at what we saw that we would expire]...Rav Huna said, "Each one of us has a thousand to his left and thousands to his right.." Rava said, “That pressing [feeling] at public lectures is because of them...those clothes of our rabbis that wear out is because of their rubbing are because of them.

Brief summary: 1) There are demons 2) They are the cause of certain annoyances 3) Among these is the quick deterioration of the clothing of rabbis/rabbinic students.

Why do I share this? It is a good reminder of the massive gulf that separates us from the Jewish past. We read the reflections of our forbears written 1000, 2000 or more years ago and try to relate our beliefs about God to their own.

And then we come across something like demons wearing down our clothes and we think, "Oh...the guy who believes that God punishes people who light fire on Shabbat is the same guy who believes that demons tear holes in my shirt."

So, why bother? Why try to accept Biblical, or Talmudic ideas about God? Maybe we should just treat them like we do the Demons-are-eating-my-clothes theory, and say "That's hilarious. And I reject it completely.

Why should religious belief be less prone to the ravages of time than strange superstitions? In another 1000 years, will the notion of God seems as ludicrous to our descendants as clothing-demons do to us?

But it is precisely these demons that keeps me at it. It is precisely the strange and uncomfortable that makes me more determined to find something to which I can relate. The animal sacrifices; the tabernacle; the goat which bears the sins of the community into the wilderness (the scapegoat); demons eating my clothing. These all speak to our historical situatedness and the contingency of our experience. Each generation creates a worldview that is impermeable to the inquiries of those who come later (what will our demons be, the ludicrous habits about which those after us will puzzle? Wave/particle duality? Kellogg's French Toaster Sticks?

The strange particulars of people at various points in history lead me to seek what is familiar and universal. My view of the deep-structure of the universe and of human being's relation to the divine is not confirmed by its similarity to the beliefs of those who share all of my assumptions. On the contrary. Only if I can verify that someone who believed in demons (and that they could be seen by grinding up the burnt placenta of a black cat and rubbing it in your eye - I'm not making that up) also shared my experience of what it means to contemplate God, to relate to the biggest questions we face, can I be sure that my beliefs have a grounding in the universal. It is the differences between us that make it possible to believe that, on a deep level, we have something in common.


  1. It may be that the ancients did view demons literally. But one aspect of them that is very understandable is they function as a way to distance God from the cruelty and arbitrariness in the universe. If the laws are set in motion and it results in a storm that kills a small child, then that is the result of a mindless demon and not the soul God. Of course, this is a conceit that allows us a more palatable way to contemplate the Universe as a kinder place and God as a more benevolent being. And we know that such subjects are essentially beyond our knowledge. But they are not so easily beyond our feelings.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I like your idea very much that demons played an important role in distancing God from the presence of evil in the universe. It makes sense.

    I don't think that's an accurate view of the function of demons in the Talmud, though. In the quote I chose, demons are responsible for various nuisances. The Talmud is quite comfortable associating the presence of evil in the universe with God. In fact, the passage that this is drawn from has an extended meditation on why it might be that God brings pain and suffering to righteous people.

    Anyway, I do like your idea and thanks again.

  3. Oh I fully agree that the stamma doesn't avoid assigning evil deeds ultimately to God... it just does so in a curious way that manages to distance us from the emotional connection. It also can give one pause about what it means to have an interactive God at all. Specifically, look at Tannit 24b2 where Rava essentially demands rain from God. He is rewarded by a torrent and for his impertinence, demons are apparently sent to kill him. The actual text only says that his father in a dream tells him to "change your [sleeping] place" and "the next day he discovered his bed marked up by knives." There is an interesting parallel here in that Rava's impertinence in demanding a modification of natural law led to a natural (if mindless) force (demons) unleashed upon him. God is never explicitly mentioned.
    As Schottenstein says in the footnote, "...when demons are given the power to harm a person in a certain place, they have no power to harm him elsewhere..." Even the editors here avoid to directly state the ultimate source of the demons. But we know.

  4. Comments about Rabbi Josh’s article “We all have our Demons”
    The false prophet Jesus was right about many things, one of which was “Do not store up treasures where moth and rust consume.”
    I have noticed the decline in the quality of clothing in America over the past 15 years as China has become the supplier of our clothing. They have unloaded their seconds and low quality clothes on us just as we did to the third world during the period of American’s economic dominance from 1945 to 1995.
    Rabbi Josh quoted another Rabbi who said that if we could see the thousands of demons surrounding us all the time we would die of fright. Maybe we see them as people, but we cannot read their hearts and minds. If we could we would die of fright.

  5. try to do the procedure and them, if you keep your mouth closed, and learn how to do the cleaning of the eyes, you tell me if it's craziness of the rabbis of the past.

    I did the one around the bed, it's true... my roommate did the one to see, we had to bring him to the ocean for cleaning the eyes...