A continued exploration of my family history and how the past can guide us through turbulent and dangerous times. See links to Parts I, II and III here:
I don’t know where the mustard seed story came from. I do know that it has everything to do with how I’ve lived my life. And even more to do with how we live in these perilous, tumultuous and heartbreaking times – how we hold onto and even expand our humanity, as we respond to dangers, losses and grief so great they can barely be imagined.
I first heard the story from my sister, who heard it from a Rabbi at an Ethnic Studies Conference sometime in the early 1990’s. The Rabbi said the story came from the Talmud or Midrash (Rabbinic commentaries on the Torah compiled from the first to tenth centuries A.D.).
I told the story – over and over. I even wrote it into a couple of my plays.
The story goes like this:
There was a woman who was so consumed with grief over the death of her only son that she went to the Prophet Elisha to ask him to restore her son to life. But the Prophet said, “Bring me a mustard seed from the home of a family who has known no sorrow. And then I’ll restore your son to life,” Well, the woman left immediately to begin her search. And Elisha did not see her again for many years. Then, one day, he saw her, hurrying through the streets of a busy marketplace. He called out to her and asked, “Why have you not come back to me to tell me what you found?” She replied, “I went searching, like you said, for a mustard seed from the home of a family that has known no sorrow. But in every home I entered, I found such pain. Well, I just had to stay and offer what help I could. I was so busy trying to relieve the pain, that I had no time to return and tell you what I found.”
From the first time I heard it, the story grabbed my heart and would not let go. It felt deeply relevant to both the inevitable wounding and grief that life entails, and also those times of extraordinary peril and loss – the kind of times it feels like we are heading into now.
Even more incredibly, it echoed the story of how my mother and her parents, as Dutch Jews, escaped Holland on the eve of World War II (one of those moments of extraordinary peril and loss). I wrote about my family’s story, and its relevance to our times, in Lessons from the Holocaust for Our Times, Parts I and II (links above) and will briefly summarize it below:
My great-grandparent’s kindness in raising a German Jewish orphan (named Ulie) during World War I, gave my grandparents the opportunity to protect and hide this woman and her family when, as adults, they were smuggled out of Nazi Germany. My grandparents act of generosity in giving shelter to this family gave them the knowledge of what was really going in inside Nazi Germany (which was little known outside Germany at that time), and contact with people that could support them in making plans to leave Europe.
“Because we risked ourselves for others, we ourselves we saved,” I remember my grandmother telling me, over and over again, when I was still in elementary school.
My grandmother’s parents, (who raised Ulie as a child) were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, along with most of my extended family. Yet, had my great-grandparent’s not opened their home to this orphan child, my grandparents would not have had an early warning of the necessity to leave, nor the connections to help them do so – and I would not have been born.
When I first heard this mustard seed story, my heart was pierced by the idea that the way to heal our wounds, and our grief over life’s tragedies, was to reach out to others who were also suffering. Later I came to a deeper layer of understanding that we are shaped by our wounds, that our gifts grow from our wounds, and when we give from our best selves, we are giving from the strengths that our wounds have created within us.
Overlaying this mustard seed story on top of my family’s escape story, brought me to a deeper and wider layer of understanding. In one sense, the story grew in “widening circles” (to draw from the poet Rilke).
The first layer of meaning is more about personal growth; how we can grow our selves, our strengths and gifts, while moving through the kinds of tragedies, grief and sorrow that are part of being human in more or less ordinary times – and how we return what we learn through our growth to support and enrich others.
My family story widened this understanding to the saving of physical lives in one of those extraordinarily dark moments of human history. One generation’s act of kindness in more or less ordinary times (the raising of an orphaned child), let to the next generation taking a risk in extraordinary times (hiding that woman and her family) that, in unanticipated ways, led to saving that generation and the next (my grandmother and mother) from almost certain death – and allowed me, the forth generation of this story, to be born.
Widening this mustard seed story onto the map of world history, I saw that giving and risking one’s self to help and even save others leads to more than saving oneself emotionally. It can also lead to saving others’ physical lives, in ways beyond what those who acted courageously in dark times could anticipate, expect or know.
For me, this mustard seed story, and my family’s escape story, took on the stature of myth, in the deepest, truest sense of the word.
“Myth is not about what happened in past times; myth is about what happens to people all of the time,” writes mythologist Michael Meade in his book The Genius Myth.
I believe myths are stories that reveal deeper and universal truths, weaving threads of wisdom and meaning through human history and into the future.
If this is true, what do these two stories show us about the times we are now living in – when human created climate changes threatens the continuance of life on Earth, when authoritarianism, fascism and Xenophobia are on the rise in our own country and globally.
But first… there’s a reason I titled this article A Tale of Two Mustard Seeds…
A Second Mustard Seed Story
Years after I first heard this mustard seed Story, after telling it at an artist’s conference, someone shared with me a similar mustard seed story (with a very different end) from Buddhist tradition.
The story goes something like this:
After the death of her only child, a woman named Kisa Gotami was so filled with sorrow that she carried her son’s body everywhere, asking for medicine to restore her son to life. An old man suggested that she go to see the Buddha. When she went to the Buddha to ask for the medicine to return her son to life, the Buddha told her to bring him some mustard seeds from the home of a family where no death had occurred. The woman went desperately from house to house, but could not find a single home that had not suffered the death of a family member. Over time she came to understand that death came to everyone, and was able to accept her son’s death. She returned to the Buddha, who comforted her. Having come to understand the impermanence of life, Kisa Gotami decided to renounce the worldly life. She asked the Buddha to admit her into an order Buddhist nuns.
This telling is my synthesis of various versions readily available on the Internet. This Buddhist mustard seed story dates back to the fifth century BC. So it clearly came before the story told by the Rabbi (the Jewish mustard seed story).
How did there come to be a Jewish version of this story, so similar in framework to the Buddhist story, yet with such different endings?
For decades, I’ve pondered the difference between these two mustard seed stories, sometimes telling them both together. I know very little about Buddhism, and thus cannot comment meaningfully on this story – other than to invite people to explore the differences.
For me the energy lives in the space between these two stories.
What do we do in the face of overwhelming sorrow, grief and loss? How do we heal ourselves? How do we transform our sorrow, grief and loss into something that can hold us, something we can hold onto and use – for ourselves and to benefit others?
A Coyote Trickster Rabbi?
As I prepared to write this article, I wanted to find the exact origins of the Jewish mustard seed story. I contacted a university Jewish Studies department, who sent my query widely to Rabbis and Jewish scholars. Much to my surprise, no one had heard of this story – although those who replied agreed that it felt quite Jewish.
Finally one Rabbi offered a possible explanation. Early Hassidic Judaism (1700s) at times borrowed stories from elsewhere and adapted then. The Rabbi referred to a Midrash story from that time period about Moses that is a close parallel to a story from Greek Mythology.
So it seems that sometime between the 1700s and now, someone (a coyote trickster Rabbi or Jewish scholar?) contributed to this practice of borrowing and adapting stories by creating the Jewish mustard seed story. Perhaps it was even the Rabbi who told the story at a conference my sister attended. I have no way of knowing.
I consider myself an ethnic or cultural Jew, not a religious Jew. So there is much I do not know about the actual religion. I do know that the Talmud and Midrash are commentaries on the Torah, explorations on the applications of various aspects – certainly not “The Word of God”. We Jews seem to be culturally and historically a people who discuss and delve deeply into the meaning of things. It that context, it feels enlivening to me that new stories have been introduced at various times, to deepen and enrich our understanding.
Somehow the mystery of the story’s origins, and that it is so little known, makes it all the more precious to me, and deepens its layers of meaning.
I am awed that this story found its way into my heart and hands, for me to share with others – especially at this juncture in human and Earth history, when the future of life on Earth (not just human life, but life as we know it) hangs in the balance, held hostage by our civilization’s belief in profit and ceaseless expansion above all else.
I carry this mustard seed story with me as I walk the creek-side path near my home. Each spring I marvel at how the fields transform themselves into oceans of bright yellow as wild mustard plants grow in abundance from the dormant earth. These perennial plants offer important nutrients to the soil, and have been known to grow after lying dormant for more than 20 years.
As I breathe this mustard seed story out into the world and our times, I imagine it taking root and growing in “widening circles” of life and meaning, as each person and generation takes hold of it as their own. I imagine the story’s seeds growing into and through dark times, perhaps lying dormant for decades, to emerge on the far side of these turbulent times we are entering.
So what do these two stories – the Jewish Mustard Seed story and the story of my family’s escape from Europe – show us about the times we are now living in, and how to walk through the incredibly dangerous times on our horizon?
In extraordinary times of peril and loss, like those we are heading toward, it becomes even more important for us to hold onto and even expand our humanity, to practice kindness, to embrace and grow our empathy and compassion.
May these bright yellow flowers of wild mustard seed light our path through dark times and into a future whose shape is not yet visible.
Everything we do today can be sacred – in that it may save some person, some life form, some thread in the web of life.
We cannot know the full impact of our actions in times like these – just as those who risked their lives to save Ulie (the woman my great-grandparents raised as a child) could not know that my birth would be the indirect result of their actions. Just as I do not know the names of the people who risked their lives so that I might be born – and live to share this mustard seed story and its widening circles of meaning with others.
Much will certainly be lost. But how much can be saved? The future of life on Earth may depend on it.
I publish this article with a broken heart, overflowing with grief over the actions and policies of the state of Israel in regards to the Palestinian people (and many other issues). I have long been one of a large and growing number of Jewish people who feel that these policies and actions do not reflect the teachings, traditions and true meaning of Judaism.
About Dianne Monroe
Dianne Monroe is a Life Mentor, Experiential Educator, writer and photographer, living in Santa Rosa, CA. She offers programs and personal mentoring using a blend of arts, creativity and nature connection practices to support people in finding soul path and purpose, knowing their deepest life story for this world, navigating times of transition and more. Visit her website (www.diannemonroe.come), email her (Dianne@diannemonroe.com) or read more of her articles (http://www.diannemonroe.com/articlesinterviews).