March 25, 2009


From “The Selected Stories of I.L. Peretz” (Schocken Books), edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, pp. 34-37.

The Hermit and the Bear

Once there was a man who could not abide evil. So he turned the little shop he kept over to his wife, shut himself up in a room in his house, and immersed himself in Torah and prayer--studying the revealed scripture and the kabbalah as well.

But even at home, in his very own household, he saw evil. Finally, thinking the matter over, he decided to become a hermit, left his home, and went to study in a corner of the synagogue.

He sits in the synagogue, but the world's evil follows him there. Sometimes a night watchman comes in to warm himself at the stove, or a wanderer comes in to sleep, or a sleepless man blunders into the synagogue--and they sit around the stove talking--but whatever they talk about, the end is always evil upon evil.

Again, the hermit ponders the matter and leaves town to go out into the world to look for a city without evil. And he doesn't find one. It's the same world wherever he goes.

So he gives up on civilization and travels from forest to forest, over hills and valleys until, far from all human habitation, he comes to a stream. What the river is called he does not know, but on its bank there stand the ruins of an ancient palace.

Well, he settles there and busies himself with the kabbalah. But there's no way to escape from evil. The river sometimes runs wild, overturning boats, tearing up hunks of meadow and even newly sown fields. As for what goes on among the fish--a constant warfare.

So the hermit has no peace and cannot sleep. As for running away--there's no place left to run.

He lies there and thinks and thinks, trying to fathom where the source of so much evil might be; and so comes to the conclusion that evil happens because the soul of the world is asleep.

That's not such a wild thought as it seems. For instance, consider the small world of man. So long as a man's soul is awake, he does what is fitting, according to plan and according to reason. All his limbs obey his soul. But when a man is asleep, then the soul--the master of the body--dozes off; and the body starts thrashing about, without order, without purpose. Every limb goes off on its own: one hand here, the other there; the head for itself, the body for itself--all without reason.

One can get badly hurt that way!

And evil is reasonless. The world thrashes, convulsed without order; and the soul of the world is asleep. Every separate bit of the world looks out for itself, not for the welfare of all.

Do you understand? Right or wrong, this is what the hermit thought.

So he concludes that there is only one thing to do: to wake the soul of the world. Once it is awake, then order will reign. The conflicts, the convulsions, the thrashing about of the world's limbs will stop.

But how does one wake the soul of the world? For that there are ideas in the holy books. There are certain things to say and to do. It takes some fervent meditation. One has to dedicate oneself to the task wholeheartedly and with devotion. If not, the words fly off into thin air--into nothing.

Clearly, something must be created that has wings and a soul; something that knows where to fly and what to ask for when it gets there. Of course, during the day, it's not possible to create it. No sooner do you get deeply involved in thought, than a crow caws, a bird sings, or one hears a distant peasant cursing the hard soil for dulling his plow.

The right time is at night, especially at midnight.

So that's what the hermit does--night after night until he senses that he's getting somewhere.

But the angry river-spirit becomes aware of what he's doing and says: “No peace for him!” No sooner is the hermit engrossed in his meditation, than the river-spirit flings himself about, making the river seethe and roar and heave its waves against the banks until the hermit's deep thoughts are as topsy-turvy as the boatman overturned down river in the commotion.

The hermit, then, who is not eager to go looking for another ruin beside some other river (Who knows how long that would take or whether he'd find what he's looking for?) -- the hermit, then, sees that he must move the river, river-spirit and all, because, after all, evil is still multiplying and destroying the world.

Well, moving the river is a small matter for the hermit. He has a holy spell for that. All it takes is some additional fasting, some deep meditation, and the river moves.

Which puts the river-spirit into a fiery rage; but too bad for him. The holy spell has been spoken. And yet, the spirit wants revenge; so he agitates the river even more and makes the waves grow huge. Then, snatching a swollen wave, he flings it toward the bank, toward the ruins.

And the wave turns into a bear. A hairy black bear with bloodshot eyes that runs around the ruins, roaring and snarling, interfering with the hermit's meditations once again.

What's to be done? He's not going to kill the bear. That would be evil. Because, in truth, how is the bear guilty of anything? It lives; let it live!

Well, it occurs to the hermit to quiet the bear. To make something decent of him, so that, bear though he is, he will understand what it's all about.

The hermit decides to elevate the bear. He will change him and enlighten his soul.

So, one morning early, the hermit climbs to the top of his ruin and stands there looking down at the bear. No sooner does the bear see him than he falls into a dreadful rage. Digging the ground with his forepaws, he roars and growls and leaps about, his mouth foaming, glaring with bloodshot eyes at the hermit; and the hermit, his eyes filled with loving kindness, looks down at the bear. And there's a war between the two sets of eyes--the hermit's brimming with love and pity, the bear's filled with hatred and rage. But the hermit's eyes are the stronger. Slowly, slowly, they begin to conquer those of the bear.

The conflict between the two pairs of eyes, between the two hearts and the two souls, lasts a long time until, when the sun is in the east, the struggle is over; and when it is high in the heavens, the bear lies humbly before the ruin like a submissive dog; and when the sun sets, the bear rises quietly and sends the hermit a tenderly pleading look and approaches the gate of the ruins where it knocks quietly, whining like a dog to be let in.

The hermit has won. The hairy beast has given up, and his whining means to say: “Let me come to you. Let me serve you like a dog, I'll lie at your feet; I'll lick your hands, and look faithfully into your eyes, and anticipate your every desire; and when you are deep in meditation, I'll be nice and quiet beside you--I won't even catch flies.”

The hermit opens the gate. The bear approaches him and lies down quietly at his feet. And his eyes say: “You are my God. My hopes are in you. I believe in you. Your thoughts are holy. With your meditations you will rebuild the world.” And the hermit lovingly caresses the bear, the bear he has himself created, the bear that believes in him.

And he begins to muse, desiring to be immersed in his thoughts once more, to meditate on what is needful to wake the soul of the world.

But there is nothing left for him to think. He himself no longer possesses his former soul, because in the same measure that the bear has ascended to him, he has descended to the bear.

He senses a weariness in all his limbs; his eyelids grow heavy. Falteringly, he goes to his bed, and the bear follows him and lies down beside him.

There is no end to evil. The bear has become partly human, and the human, partly a bear. And a saint who lies down with a bear cannot wake the soul of the world.

Translated by Leonard Wolf