Mrs. Frisby and Zechut Avot

We are reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH because Matan is interested in animal intelligence. He recently listened to a podcast about rats who were trained to drive small cars, and then he saw the cover of Mrs. Frisby, which depicts a group of rats carrying an electric cable. So I’m reading the book aloud to the big kids after school. Yesterday we met the rats for the first time. Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse and a mother of four, approaches the rats because she needs help – she has just learned that in five days Farmer Fitzgibbon will plow the winter soil, destroying the tunnels and holes and nests and cocoon of all the animals burrowing there; but Mrs. Frisby’s youngest son Timothy is too sick and weak to relocate. At the advice of a crow, Mrs. Frisby takes counsel with a wise owl, who is at first dismissive – he tells her there is nothing to be done. But then as she is about to leave, he asks her name, and learns that she “Mrs. Jonathan Frisby,” wife of the late Jonathan Frisby.

That in itself required a fair amount of explanation. How could a Mrs. be named Jonathan? Was Jonathan also a woman’s name? Even after they understand this archaic method of address—I ought not to have used the example of Mrs. Daniel Feldman, because then they called me that all afternoon—why was Mrs. Frisby’s husband late? Is it because after you die, you can never come on time? I tried to rush through the explanations because the kids wanted me to read on, but I had something else to tell them first.

When the owl learns that the mouse who has come to seek his counsel is the wife of the late Jonathan Frisby, he changes his tune. Suddenly he is all too eager to help her in any way he can. He tells her he was an admirer of her late husband, and he will do whatever he can to save Timothy’s life. He instructs Mrs. Frisby to go to the rats that live in the rosebush on Mr. Fitzgibbon’s farm, and to be sure to tell them who she is. She must mention her husband and then they will let her in. Mrs. Frisby does not know why, but once again she will learn that her husband’s name opens doors for her that would otherwise remain firmly shut.

“What does this remind you of?” I ask the kids, and they already know what kind of answer I am looking for. “What does this remind you of?” is a question I ask them often, and as they know, it invites a specific kind of answer. It’s the equivalent of the question frequently asked in the Talmud: “M’na haney miley – where do these words come from, that is, how do we know this?” In the Talmud the response is always a biblical verse, or a rabbinic exegesis on a biblical verse, which serves as the prooftext for whatever it is the rabbis are claiming. A sukkah can’t be higher than twenty cubits, says the Mishnah. How do we know this, ask the rabbis? Because the Torah says, “So that your descendants know that I caused the Israelites to reside in Sukkot.” So long as the sukkah is twenty cubits or less, a person will be cognizant of dwelling in it; once the roof is higher, a person does not know where he or she is dwelling because the eye can no longer catch sight of the roof. My kids are more interested in Mrs. Frisby’s urgent need to find a new temporary dwelling place before her winter house is plowed. What am I trying to elicit from them?

I tell them that when we start davening the Amidah, we always invoke zechut avot – the merit of our ancestors. We don’t just stand before God and start asking for whatever it is we want. First we remind God that our forefathers are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the ones God made a covenant with and promised to sustain. Once we remind God that we are their descendants, God is more likely to listen to our prayers. By the merit of our ancestors, we receive a divine audience each time we pray.

“But Mrs. Frisby isn’t mentioning her great great great grandparents – she’s mentioning her husband,” Matan quibbles. “The one who was always late,” he adds, just to make his sisters titter. I tell him that it’s the same idea. Mrs. Frisby invokes her husband for the same reason that we invoke our forefathers every time we pray. We know that our own merits are insufficient, but we are fortunate to be related to individuals much greater than ourselves who can open doors for us.

Even our forefathers invoked their own fathers, I tell them. In this week’s parsha Jacob prays to God to be delivered from the hands of his brother Esav, whom he is preparing to meet. He says, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac… deliver me, I pray” (Gen. 32:10,12). Jacob feels that he does not deserve God’s kindness on account of his own merits alone: “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have shown Your servant.” But while he may be unworthy, his father and grandfather are certainly not. God will help Jacob by the merit of Abraham and Isaac, just like the rats will help Mrs. Frisby by the merit of her late husband.

But how will the rats help her, and will their help come fast enough? In five days the plow will destroy their home. “Ima, keep reading,” Matan urges eagerly. And I will, until we come to the next biblical intertext, which is surely not that far off. My children are used to these interruptions. The fiction I read them is inherently valuable, but almost nothing in our home remains secular for long. Whatever novel we are reading becomes a springboard for learning about the parsha, or about Torah more broadly construed. Scholars of midrash argue that for the ancient rabbis, biblical verses were often treated as a springboard for discussing other aspects of Jewish learning. The rabbis would go through each verse in a biblical book and then launch into an excursus about some teaching loosely connected to that particular verse. This is why the exegetical midrashim on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are so lengthy and encyclopedic – there is so much learning to associate with each and every verse. I try to follow their example, using fiction they used the Bible, so that various passages in the novels we read serve as frameworks for expounding on Torah.

Just when I am about to turn the page to start the next chapter, I recall that the only reason Mrs. Frisby was afforded a consult with the owl was because the crow carried her there on his back. And the crow carried her on his back because he owed her a favor – not long ago, in a previous chapter, she had rescued the crow from the farmer’s fearsome cat. It was middah k’negged middah, as the sages called it – measure for measure. One good turn deserved another. Mrs. Frisby was not just riding on her husband’s coattails when the crow offered to carry her on its back and take her to the owl. It was by the merit of her own good deed that she had won a favor from the crow, who brought her to the owl, who sent her to the rats, who would help her save Timothy. Dayenu, I decided. It was enough for one day. That lesson would wait for tomorrow.

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