Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The Righteous Bird

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A rather short and wonderful commentary tells us that everyone tasted from the Tree of Knowledge except a bird called Chol (Genesis Rabbah 19). According to our Sages, the same lone and righteous bird still lives in the Garden of Eden to this day. He lives alone in the Garden and no one knows him.

As our Sages see it, the Chol bird symbolizes the tension between public opinion and personal opinion. Would we be prepared to pay the price of social exclusion in exchange for choosing a moral and correct course of action? Isn't it really preferable to act according to the opinion of the widest majority, even if it is warped?

And we are not only speaking of corruption here. There are less meaningful social customs which we would prefer not to choose, and which social pressure causes us to choose anyway. Even the smallest and most irrelevant things such as clothing fashions.

And here is another example connected to Israeli reality: I am driving in a massive traffic jam on the road which is moving ten meters per minute, and I see one car, then a second and a third car overtaking me from the right hand side, along the edge of the road, which is forbidden, and nevertheless arriving home one and a half hours before me. And at the same moment I would like to be just like them, but I know that it would be wrong…

This is the tension between personal and public opinion…and this is the point of the midrash about the Chol, the righteous bird.

I read about a very interesting experiment performed by an American university a few years ago. On one board was a drawing of ten equal parallel lines of equal length and ten volunteers stood opposite the board. They were asked to answer only one question: Are the ten lines identical? They all replied in the negative.

How is it possible that ten people would say "no" to something so obvious and openly visible? Wasn't it clear to everyone that those lines were equal?

The answer is simple. Out of the same ten volunteers, nine belonged to the university staff. Only the tenth was an outsider. The experiment was supposed to test the reaction of the tenth person, and his ability to express an opinion which contradicted that of the majority. He thought that it was an experiment of the Exact Sciences Faculty, but it was, in fact, of the Humanities Faculty..

In this same experiment, the Chol, that lone and righteous bird, would have contradicted the majority. And how about the rest of us?

According to the book of Genesis, two cherubim stand at the entrance of the Garden of Eden in order to guard the way to the Tree of Life. But…who knows? Perhaps they are also standing there to prevent that righteous bird from leaving.
Because public opinion is such a persuasive force, and the temptation is always so great…