The fifth book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, begins with the words “Eileh hadevarim… These are the words that Moshe spoke.” However, the Midrash homiletically reads the second word not as devarim, which means “words,” but rather as devorim, which means “bees.”
“These are the devarim” – Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: The Holy One said, my sons were conducted in this world like bees with the righteous and with the prophets. (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:5)Bees are viewed extremely positively in Judaism. This isn’t just because they’re not WASPS. Nor is it due to the honey that they provide. It is also because of their organizational structure. One of the references to bees in the Torah occurs with the story of Shimshon, and it alludes to their remarkable social structure:
“And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and, behold, there was a nest of bees (adas devorim) and honey in the carcass of the lion.” (Shoftim 14:8)As the commentaries explain, adas devarim refers to a nest of bees. But the word adas is based on the word eidah. This means “congregation” or “community,” and this name reflects the unique structure of a bee colony.
A beehive consists of anywhere from 20,000 to 250,000 bees. There are three basic kinds of bee in the colony: The queen, drones, and workers.
The queen is the mother and master of the hive. She is the only bee that gives birth, and lives approximately 2 years, laying up to 2,500 eggs per day. Towards the end of a queen’s life, she will produce an egg from which another queen will hatch. The queen communicates her demands to the rest of the hive by releasing a scent. The other bees fan the smell around the hive, letting the entire hive know.
Drones are male bees. There are only a few hundred drones in a hive at any time. These males do no work; their only purpose being to fertilize the queen. After the drones have completed their single task, they are evicted from the hive and left to starve to death outside of the hive. Though this sounds unfair, they do so often out of their own accord, as if they understood this as their only purpose in life.
The other 99% of bees in the hive are worker bees, which are all female. They have different tasks, depending upon their age. Guard bees protect the hive. House bees clean the cells so they can be used again. Wax bees build new cells and repair old ones. Nurse bees care for and feed the undeveloped young; they also make necessary for the development of the larvae. Forager bees are the oldest and most experienced bees; they gather pollen and nectar, spending a lot of time away from the hive.
The extraordinary nature of bee colonies is the reason for the Midrash seeing them as being alluded to in the word devarim. In the words of another Midrash:
“These are the devarim” – Just as with the bee, its children are led after it, so too Israel is led by the righteous and the prophets. (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 1:795)Etz Yosef explains that just as bees follow the greatest bee, the queen, so too with Israel do people of lesser stature follow those of greater stature. Bees live in a hierarchal society, headed by a queen. This symbolizes Jewish society, in which there is also a hierarchal system – the people follow their leaders, be they kings, prophets, or Torah scholars. And just as bees are able to accomplish amazing things by virtue of their organized, methodical social structure – namely, producing honey – so too the Jewish people are able to accomplish amazing things – preserving an ancient way of life against overwhelming odds.
(The name of the bee is related the concept of a leader. Simply speaking, the bee is called devorah because its buzzing sound sounds like a form of communication (even though it is actually merely a byproduct of its wings beating). But others suggest that the bee earns its name by virtue of its nature to follow the direction of a leader. The word dover means “to direct”; “davar” means “leader.” And since the bee’s leader is female, the bee’s name is devorah in the feminine gender. Thus, eileh hadevarim would mean these are the directions that Moshe directed, and would also be homiletically read to refer to those who follow leaders – both bees, and the Jewish People.)
This parallel between Jews and bees can be taken further. Sefer Devarim is also known as Mishneh Torah, the review of the Torah. Devarim is the repackaging of the Torah for the next generation. There are many such “repackaged” versions – the Mishnah, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, the Shulchan Aruch, and so on. Of these, the most important by far is the Babylonian Talmud, the siyum of which was celebrated this week.
The Babylonian Talmud has been the backbone of Jewish life for centuries. It is a fascinating text. It’s not a code of law. It’s a presentation of discussion and analysis by the Amora’im of the words of the Tanna’im. There is a clear hierarchal structure, like that of bees. Just as the worker bees scurry around, busy with activity, never undermining the leadership of the queen, so too the Sages of the Talmud busy themselves with discussion and analysis, never undermining the leadership of the Mishnah.
But perhaps this parallel between Jews and bees can be even more revealing. Bees in many countries are currently suffering from colony collapse disorder. The reasons for this are not well understood. It has been attributed to parasites, disease, pesticides, cellphone radiation, and a host of other problems. Some suggest that it’s due to the bees having allergies – they always have hives (ba-da-bum!). But it is generally thought that, whatever is causing colony collapse disorder, the reasons why bees are especially susceptible is that domesticated bees today do not have sufficient genetic diversity to cope with these threats. In order for bees to successfully cope with problems, they need genetic diversity – which means that bees must not be perfect, uniform, carbon copies of each other. This used to always be the case – despite the ostensible appearance of perfect uniformity, there is genetic variation in bee colonies. But domestic bees today are all descended from a very limited starter group. There is therefore very little genetic diversity, which renders them especially vulnerable to problems. It’s the artificial farming of bees that put them through a genetic bottleneck and made them too uniform.
The parallels to the Bavli are fascinating. The truth is that the notion of the sages of the Talmud as expounding upon the Sages of the Mishnah with perfect replication is somewhat of a myth. There is tremendous innovation, and even revisionism of the Mishnah. In fact, according to Menachem Fisch, in his book “Rational Rabbis,” this is the very reason why the Bavli is not presented as a legal code- the point of it is to present an approach to dealing with earlier codes, and showing how to adapt them without overtly undermining them. The Talmud says that “one who argues with his teacher, is as one who argues with the Shechinah” – but the Talmud is full of people arguing with their teachers! The Rishonim explain that the problem is only one of undermining their authority. It is possible to disagree, and even act differently from one’s teacher, without undermining their authority.
Bees are able to be extraordinary insects due to their hierarchal structure. But their hives collapse if there is only perfect replication without genetic innovation. So, too, if we try to innovate a new form of Judaism, it won’t get anywhere; but if we just carbon-copy what previous Jews have done, we will not be able to cope with new challenges. We need to follow the approach of the Bavli, which, while paying great respect to earlier traditions, knows how to subtly adapt to changing circumstances. It’s a difficult balancing act – fealty to tradition, but knowing how to adapt. If we’re going to succeed at being Jewish, we need to know how to be beeish!
NOTE to readers in Chicago - This Sunday, as well as the Torah Tour of the Lincoln Park Zoo in the morning, I am giving a lecture on Rationalism Vs. Mysticism in the evening. See details here. I will also be selling books at the lecture, at a discount.