By Rabbi Avi Shafran
It looked like a bumblebee but something was odd. It seemed too shiny and too black, too large-limbed and lumbering. Maybe, I thought, it was just an aged member of the species. I watched as it crawled slowly across a wooden beam that I had mounted last summer above the metal railing of the deck outside our dining room. Since our home’s main floor is its second one, there was a halachic need – as per the Torah’s law of “ma’akeh,” or “roof enclosure” (Devarim 22:8) – to extend the deck’s waist-high railing upward. Hence the home-made wooden extension the bee had discovered.I have always enjoyed the company of bees. As a child I would watch them, capture them, observe their behavior and occasionally endure their stings. Even to this day, in the sukkah, as others recoil at the sight of yellow-jackets, I will happily hold out my hand for the insects to crawl on, and escort them outside. Bumblebees, though, with their amazing flight maneuvers, have always been a personal favorite. And this one was strange.
What he did was even stranger, crawling to the underside of the wood and just parking himself there, upside down. Investigating, I saw that he had found, and apparently found to his liking, a perfectly round hole, about a half-inch in diameter. Compounding the strangeness, I didn’t remember ever noticing the hole.
That was on the second day of Shavuos, just as I completed a seder limud. (The deck is my special beis medrash, weather permitting.) Later in the day, I noticed that the bee had tunneled into the hole; puffs of sawdust could be seen emerging from it; eventually all that was visible of the animal was its hindquarters. After Yomtov, I did some research and discovered that the bee was a she, and not bumblebee at all, but a carpenter bee.
The female of the species, I learned, prepares a nursery for her offspring by excavating the underside – always the underside – of a piece of wood, creating a near-perfectly round hole and then burrowing an inch or so into it before abruptly turning at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally. Eventually the hollowed-out area will be where the bee lays her brood.
She will partition off different areas of the tunnel, providing each “room” with a wad of pollen and nectar, and then lay one egg on it before sealing it off. Each egg will become a larva that will subsist on its personal manna until it develops into a pupa and then, finally, a new bee. The young bees will then break through the partitions and escape into the outside world.
I can’t wait.
The Rambam characterizes the “path” to fulfilling the mitzvah of ahavas Hashem thus: “When a person ponders [Hashem’s] great and wondrous acts and creations and perceives in them His limitless wisdom… he loves and praises and extols [Hashem] and is filled with a deep and great desire to know [Him]…” (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2)
The awe-inspiring is all around us, if we care to look and think, and are not fooled into imagining that nature’s fantasticalness is a phantasm, the meaningless yield of random meetings of molecules. Watching the carpenter bee was, for me, a new step on the path the Rambam describes.
And it reminded me, too, of Ben Azzai’s words in Avos (4:2): “The consequence of a mitzvah is another mitzvah.”
For had it not been for the mitzvah of ma’akeh, which had required me to build a sufficiently high railing for my deck, I would not have been able to study Torah, another mitzvah, of course, on my deck. The ma’akeh had led to talmud Torah.
And had I not been studying Torah on my deck, I might never have met the carpenter bee, who I truly feel advanced me on the path leading to a most important mitzvah, ahavas Hashem.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]