Life in a Petri Dish

If you were fortunate enough to catch my trilogy on identity last week, you’re already aware that I’m in a state of questioning the role of religion in my life but also feel most Jewish in a state of study and discourse. However, my independent study has a crucial flaw compared to a true student of Talmud: I lack a chaver, a friend, a study partner. Rarely do students study alone–they work in pairs, bouncing ideas from one mind to the other until true learning has been achieved.

I lack a study partner, but thankfully, I have you–and I always welcome comments and discussions, always welcome additional voices filling the blank places of the internet upon which these words encroach.

No matter, the summer has returned in full force. Less than a month ago I graduated with my associate degree and in two months I’ll begin classes at a new college working towards my bachelor’s degree. In the time since I walked across the stage and turned my tassel, I’ve gone to the beach, been a guest at another graduation, spent more time playing video games than I have in the last eight months, and studied over Shavuot and spent some serious time in the study of introspection. All of this has only been preparation for my annual dive into the Pirkei Avot. This year I’m starting chapter three and I hope you’ll follow me on this enlightening journey.

3.1 Rabbi Akaviah ben Mahalalel taught:

Ponder three things and you will avoid falling into sin: Know your origin, your destination, and before Whom you will be required to give an accounting.

Your origin? A putrid drop.
Your destination? A place of dust, worms, and maggots.
Before Whom will you be required to give an accounting?
Before the King of kings, the Holy One, praised-be-he.

I think it’s fitting I should read this in the state I’m in: At first glance, this is a lesson on life and direction. What better a lesson could I have chosen for myself? Contemplating life and where I’m headed has been on my mind for a while–maybe it’s the closeness to graduation, the dawn of a new college experience, or just having time to think again after so many months of being consumed by school.

However, on a second and a third read-through, things don’t seem so straightforward. Yes, know where you’re coming from–for without this, how will you know who you are and the forces that have shaped you? And know where you’re going–or else, how will you ever be able to get there? And, yes, know that in the end, God is the only judge you need to worry about. But this teaching doesn’t merely say “look at yesterday” or “plan for tomorrow”; it pushes you all the way back and all the forward through your human life. It takes a hundred and twenty years and presses them into a Petri dish full of putrid drops and parasites. Three cheers for introspection under a microscope.

What is meant by the putrid drop? Creation–origin–I would think dust, for didn’t God create humans out of the earth? Instead, this is more individual, less foundational and more didactic. As a race, we have been born from the bowels of the earth–but as a person, I am less than that. We all are. So the putrid drop. I think it signifies the male seed, a suspicion only supported by obvious imagery and the fact the sages adored euphemism.

And the place of dust, worms, and maggots? It’s easily a grave, a spot in the earth, a resting place for eternity. Death. Being devoured until you’re fully decayed. All your earthly beauty submitted to ugly creatures that live in the dark and feed on your flesh. Not especially encouraging, is it?

That’s the point, I think: To be humbling. If all we are is the scion of a putrid drop of chemicals and half-baked sex cells, what does that say of each of us? What are we entitled to if we’re no more than a nocturnal emission saved by a womb? The American in me would argue that my “putrid drop” was faster and stronger than all the others fighting to fertilize, but I think that arrogance and self-serving speech would entirely miss the point that Rabbi Akaviah is trying to make. We are nothing special. A miracle, yes, but a miracle made of lowly liquids.

The significance of the latter description is of grave importance: If we all end in the same dank and dirty place, what is the use of amassing wealth, prestige, and power? We can build a legacy and make a mark upon the world, but what’s the use in gloating when we’ll all be floating with the worms in the end? What’s the use of beauty when it’ll all be torn apart by maggots soon enough? What’s the use in pursuing aimless ends if we all die anyways?

As with the former admonition, this one is humbling as well. It reduces each of us to a blink between inception and burial that’s no more than a mass of disgust. But if this is the case, what keeps us from living lives defined by disgust? Lives supported by scheming, self-slavery, and sin? Why not make a party of our prison in this Petri dish and go wild, have fun, break things and don’t stop till the cops come?

That lesson comes in the last admonition, the third thing we must ponder (and not know or believe, but ponder–asserting that only in continual questioning can we find truth): At the end of days, we will be judged by God. I know everyone doesn’t believe this, and right now I don’t know how deeply I believe it either, but assuming that there is something or someone out there that will require us to give an accounting of our lives, wouldn’t we want to be proud of the things we report? To speak with conviction before the Holy One?

In another way, it’s uplifting. After spending paragraphs dwelling about how worthless we are in the grand scheme of things, to believe there is a power out there who will listen to a recounting of our lives after death is somehow comforting. It gives a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives. It opens the door for potential, for a reason to grow and improve, for a reason to learn and live a good life. We are more than drops and dust–we have the potential to bring ourselves face-to-face with the ultimate creator.

But what next? All this theology, though fascinating, is pointless rambling on its own. Today I’m interested in practicality. Life seems too busy and cutthroat sometimes to care for philosophy when the dishes need doing, laundry has to be done, and I still haven’t made my bed. Philosophy floats to the back of my mind when tests approach and invitations arise. Theology is empty fantasy without something to substantiate the claim.

It reminds me of the saying “Gam ze ya’avor,” a saying which means “This too shall pass.” The messages seem to serve a dual purpose: On the one hand, to whittle down highs and on the other, to build up lows, except Rabbi Akaviah’s teaching shifts the focus from the temporal to the moral. We should act in accord not because all of life is inherently fleeting, but because there is a greater purpose in this mythology than to merely learn words.

The good thing about Jewish study–even if I don’t have a chaver to share it with–is that no answer is final, there is no end-road to anything. Right now, this lesson feels unfinished, as if there’s something still under the surface I’m just not seeing, but in time, when I come back to it, I’ll see the whole picture. For now, these words will serve as a new beginning, a new source of strength to endure the study that’s ahead of me.

And, trust me, there’s a lot still to come.

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2 thoughts on “Life in a Petri Dish

  1. >that there is something or someone out there that will require us to give an accounting of our lives

    This really hit home. If my dissociative experiences taught me one thing, and one thing only, it is that there is no greater comfort than to know that in all misunderstanding, misinformation and unawareness we both fall prey to and ourselves exert, there is at least one point, one entity or one ideal that understands and acknowledges all.

    Humbling, perhaps, but invigorating and empowering also.

    • Very true. I believe that all experiences shape us, but that all uniqueness in our experiences allows us to become closer through sharing these differences. Thank you for sharing.

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