King of the Ants

 


Photo: Bruce Plotkin

King of the Ants

By Daniel Victor

 

At first, Rabbi Moses Glitski had a hard time understanding exactly how the Zoom meetings worked. When he stared directly at the little rectangle on the screen that showed the face of his friend, Irv Broomstein, Rabbi Glitski mistakenly assumed that Irv was looking directly back at him and him alone. Accordingly, Rabbi Glitski was irritated when Irv didn’t react to the faces Glitski made during Rabbi Lavine’s Bible class. At one point during the presentation, Rabbi Glitski interrupted and corrected something Rabbi Lavine had said, but Lavine kept talking and didn’t even acknowledge the comment. Irv explained later that Rabbi Lavine had muted everyone during the call and no one had been able to hear Rabbi Glitski’s observation.
 
The muting infuriated Rabbi Glitski, but Irv persuaded him that it was good that no one had heard his comment. Rabbi Lavine had officiated at the synagogue for only a few months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was still in his honeymoon period — that was the way Irv had characterized it. “You don’t point out the defects of your wife on your honeymoon, do you?” Irv had asked.
 
“But the stuff he says is not only stupid; half the time it’s just plain wrong!” protested Rabbi Glitski.
 
“Nevertheless,” Irv had replied. “Besides, it would look like sour grapes — the retired rabbi of the congregation trying to undermine his successor. Just grit your teeth and bear it.”
 
“This is what happens when flesh and blood human beings are reduced to just pixies on a screen!” Rabbi Glitski declared. “If I were sitting there in the room right in front of him, he wouldn’t have the nerve to ignore me. He’d have to listen to me!”
 
“Pixels, Glitz. They’re pixels, not pixies.”
 
“Whatever. You get what I mean.”
 
Rabbi Glitski knew that his friend was right — that if he had disagreed publicly with Rabbi Lavine, it would look as if he had been unable to move on as if he had not come to terms with his retirement and was trying to claw his way back into the synagogue leadership. Anyhow, Lavine’s deficits were so glaring, the congregation would come to its senses soon enough. So Glistski clamped his jaws shut and confined himself to making faces during Lavine’s Zoom sermons.
 
The retirement dinner that the synagogue threw for Rabbi Glitski had been very respectable. It had taken place while the virus was still confined to China, so it was a real event, not a virtual one. The congregation presented him with a brass Tiffany table clock with an inscription: With affection and gratitude for 39 years of service. His wife and one of his four daughters and her family had attended. Rabbi Glitski felt the response to his speech had been overwhelmingly positive. Afterwards, he visited the Tiffany’s website and saw that the clock had cost four hundred dollars! And that didn’t even include the cost of the engraved inscription.
 
The one thing he hadn't thought about prior to the event was what he would say when people asked him what he planned to do now that he was retiring. He had had to scramble to come up with an answer. After a few awkward moments of silence, he blurted that his plan was to do Daf Yomi—namely, to complete the study of the Talmud, one page every day, for the next seven and a half years.
 
When they returned home that evening, his wife, Sharon, expressed her surprise that he was embarking on the new Daf Yomi cycle. “This is the first I’ve heard of it,” she complained.
 
Rabbi Glitski replied, “I’m going to be seventy years old in two months. If not now, when?”
 
“But you probably have already covered most of the Talmud. Learning one folio page each day—you could do that in your sleep!”
 
“I like the idea that all over the world, each day, tens of thousands of Jews are studying the same page of the Talmud that the entire Jewish people are united in this… this Glitski groped for the right word —“this laudable effort.”
 
“Since when are you in love with the entire Jewish people? You wouldn’t even agree to eat dinner in ninety-nine percent of their homes.”
 
“Yes, I would! I might want to eat on paper plates and bring my own kosher food, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to join them for dinner.”
 
Sharon regarded her husband skeptically. “Look all of a sudden who’s so ecumenical.”
 
“That’s unfair. I am, after all, Modern Orthodox.”
 
“Emphasis on the Orthodox — not so much on the Modern.”
 
“That’s so unfair,” he protested. “I’m plenty modern. I Zoom, I Google, I Facetime with the grandkids in Israel. I even Amazon.”
 
“Oh, yes,” Sharon snorted, “you’re a veritable George Jetson, aren’t you?”
 
“Who’s George Jetson?”
 
“Never mind.” Sharon took a deep breath, slid her hand across the kitchen table, and patted his hand. “Moishe,” she said softly, “by all means study Daf Yomi. I actually love the idea. I’m just a little worried about you. You need to find something that will occupy your mind in retirement.”
 
“You should retire, too, and then we could travel.” He looked around the tacky kitchen of the apartment to which he and Sharon had been forced to move when they’d vacated the house owned by the synagogue for the rabbi. Rabbi Lavine and his family now lived in that house. “We could live half a year in Israel near Ruchie or Shoshi and the grandkids.”
 
“We’ve been through this already, Moishe. I love teaching high school, and I’m not even sixty-five yet. And no one is traveling anywhere in this virus situation.”
 
“Okay, okay. Don’t worry about me. Don’t worry about old Rabbi Glitski. Old Rabbi Glitski will be just fine.”
 
 
Rabbi Glitski’s daughters wanted to buy him a special gift for his seventieth birthday, and they kept asking him what he wanted. He didn't know. As the date approached, their clamor for some insight into what he desired grew in intensity. He was convinced he didn't want anything. The thought of the seventieth birthday celebration on Zoom with the extended family saddened him.
 
He was dutifully studying one page of the Talmud each day, keeping up with the other Jews worldwide who were engaged in the same endeavor. But most Jews who tackled the Daf Yomi regimen studied the Talmud in their spare time: either before or on their way to work, or in the evenings after work. He had all day, every day, to devote to the project, but even if he delved deeply into the text, it took hardly more than a couple of hours, and generally far less time than that. He regularly took a morning walk through the neighborhood, but that experience was starting to grate on him. The streets were almost empty, as if the pandemic had already depopulated the world. His mask and sweaty plastic gloves irritated him. The few people he did see were wearing masks so he often couldn’t tell if he knew them or not. Consequently, he gave a little nod or unobtrusive wave to everyone he encountered. Most of them ignored his acknowledgment. The things that he had always believed were distinctive about his appearance — his salt-and-pepper mustache and goatee, his prominent chin and aquiline nose — were now obscured by his mask. Did his former congregants fail to recognize him, or was he being intentionally slighted? Perhaps they were taking advantage of the anonymity of masks to insult him, to settle scores. What scores there were to settle, though, Rabbi Glitski could not imagine.
 
Even his meager enjoyment of the natural world began to dishearten him. During his mid-morning walks, he often passed sprinklers that were playing back and forth on the lawns of the stately homes that existed only a few blocks from his apartment building. At first, he basked in the spray of the tiny droplets of water that drifted in eddies of air, glittering in the spring sunlight. But as the pandemic deepened into late April, he began to ask himself whether the minuscule bubbles of moisture came from the sprinklers or whether these air-borne droplets were something else. Were they just water, or were they the lethal payload from a cough or a sneeze launched by some infected carrier from around the corner? Soon he began to avoid altogether the tranquil side streets with their thirsty lawns.
 
After his morning walk, the remainder of the day yawned before him. He consumed the time by scouring the internet for material about COVID-19: He read every article he could find about the pandemic, and particularly about the virus itself. He even wrestled with articles published in scientific journals. He noticed a remarkable thing about COVID-19: the more he read about it, the less he understood. Even what the virus itself looked like was unclear from the electron microscope images that he scrutinized. Sometimes it appeared to be a green sphere with orange filaments; other times it was a grey ball studded with scarlet protuberances, like a medieval mace. How did the contagion spread? From coughing, sneezing, touching, brushing up against someone, walking in their wake — even from singing or playing a wind instrument? From all of the above? Should he wear a mask, or not bother? Wear gloves, or only wash his hands every five minutes? Every day, he studied the experts and every day he remained as confused as the day before.
 
He studied the death notices, as well. He scanned the obituaries that were printed daily in the online news services, particularly the Jewish sites that covered the Tri-state area. It was not that he expected to recognize the names and be surprised by the news of their having succumbed. He usually received word of the death of anyone in his Jewish orbit by email before it was ever publicized as an online obituary an email announcing a funeral that no one was permitted to attend, as well as a Zoom shiva to pay one’s respects. His attention to the obituaries was more about seeing who these people were, what their lives had been like before they were felled by COVID-19. And to check their ages—to take note of how many of the deceased were in their late sixties or early seventies.
 
Several weeks before his birthday, as he reviewed page sixty-six of the Talmudic tractate of Shabbos, he came across the following statement: 

Abaye said: Mother told me that to treat a fever that strikes daily… one must sit at a crossroads, and when he sees a large ant carrying something, he must take the ant and place it in a copper tube. Then he must seal the ends of the tube with lead, and seal it with sixty different types of seals. Then he must shake the tube and carry it around with him.
 
Then he must say to the ant: “Your burden upon me, and my burden upon you.”
 
And then the fever will leave him.
 
This prescription in the Talmud triggered in him a vivid childhood memory. When he was seven years old, he had badgered his parents for a pet as a birthday present. They resolutely refused, pointing out that there was no room for a pet in a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment inhabited by two adults and five children. He had persisted, whining incessantly. Finally, when his birthday arrived, his parents gave him an ant farm as his present.
 
He had been delighted with the gift. His older brother whispered to him that an ant farm was not the same as a puppy—in fact, it was even inferior to a goldfish, but Rabbi Glistski hadn’t listened. He set up the ant farm on the windowsill beside the bed he shared with his three-year old brother, and together they watched the ants excavate their convoluted tunnels in the white sand sandwiched between the clear plastic walls of the ant farm. Observing the ant farm was the last thing that he did before switching off the light and going to sleep, and the first thing he did after awakening the next morning.
 
Later that week, Tali, one of his daughters, called him, and again interrogated him about what he wanted as a gift for his seventieth birthday.
 
“An ant farm,” he replied.
 
“What’s an ant farm?” she asked.
 
“Google it.” He heard the keyboard of her computer clattering as she searched. When she’d apparently found a web page offering ant farms for sale, Tali exclaimed, “Abba, you can’t be serious!”
 
“I am. That’s what I want… since you asked.”
 
On his birthday, Rabbi Glitski and his family — all four of his daughters and their husbands and kids — participated in a Zoom birthday party in his honor. To his surprise, Sharon had arranged for every household in the family to bake the same birthday cake. Each family blew out seven candles on each of the cakes simultaneously. The Zoom gathering spanned ten time zones, since two of his daughters lived in Israel, one in Los Angeles, and one in Atlanta. Despite his initial misgivings, he was touched by the transcontinental virtual birthday party. After the cutting of the cakes and the singing of Happy Birthday, Sharon lugged a huge box to the dining room table where the iPad had been set up to broadcast the Zoom call. The Zoom party suddenly erupted in commentary.
 
“Ima!” his daughter Chani in Los Angeles exclaimed. “You’re not wearing gloves!”
 
“This box has been lying around for a week. No need for gloves,” Sharon replied.
 
Ruchie, their daughter in Jerusalem, interrupted. “That’s not what we are hearing in Israel, Ima. The virus can live for days for weeks even on the surface of a cardboard box.”
 
“Actually, that’s not exactly true,” Rabbi Glitski said. “Based on my research—”
 
He was cut off by his daughter Shoshi from Petach Tikva. “The research is inconclusive, so it’s best to be careful.”
 
“I hear a baby crying,” Sharon said.
 
He persisted. “The most recent studies indicate—”
 
“It’s not my little one,” Tali in Altlanta said, holding up her six-month old in front of the computer’s camera lens. The baby smiled and gurgled.
 
“Don’t let Ima change the subject!” Chani interjected.
 
“No, really,” Sharon insisted, “I hear a baby crying.”
 
“The weight of the evidence at present suggests that the real COVID-19 vector—”
 
“Ima is never wrong,” admitted Shoshi. “It’s my Duvie. He’s the worst sleeper of all of them.” She disappeared from the screen to tend to her infant.
 
“Okay, okay,” said Sharon, “next time I’ll wear gloves.” She  took a kitchen knife, slit open the packing tape on the box, and gestured to her husband to open it. Inside were the first seven volumes of the Steinzaltz Talmud, the most cutting-edge Talmudic edition in existence, one which he had coveted for years. “Just what you need for Daf Yomi,” his wife proclaimed. “The other thirty-seven volumes are on their way.”
 
Rabbi Glitski began to give a short speech of gratitude, but other babies scattered among his global family began to wail, a two-year old in Los Angeles broke a glass, and the call ended abruptly.
 
Sharon helped her husband clear a space in the bookcase for the first seven volumes of his new Talmud. Before he went to bed, he paused in front of the bookcase and ran his index finger slowly over each faux leather binding of the set. As he did so, a verse from a Psalm recited every Shabbat morning came to mind: The days of our years among them are seventy. If with strength, eighty, but their pride is only toil and pain, for it is cut off swiftly and we fly away. “Yes,’ he murmured to himself, “Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday Rabbi Glitski, Happy Birthday to me.”
 
Then he went to bed.
 
 
The next morning, before opening the first volume of his new Talmud, Rabbi Glitski clicked onto Amazon and ordered an ant farm. A week later, the ant farm arrived. He carefully opened the box at the dining room table.
 
“What’s that?” Sharon asked.
 
“An ant farm.”
 
“Who gave you an ant farm?”
 
“I did.”
 
“When you told Tali you wanted an ant farm, we thought you were kidding.”
 
“I wasn’t. Why doesn’t anyone ever listen to me?”
 
“Don’t let those creatures loose in the apartment,” Sharon warned. “And how come you’re not wearing gloves? We promised the girls we would open packages wearing gloves.”
 
“You promised. Not me.”
 
The ant farm was precisely as he’d remembered it. It was roughly the size of a loose-leaf notebook, two plastic windows mounted vertically on a pale green platform bearing the inscription Ant Farm. Above the sand was a silhouette in green plastic of a farmhouse, a barn, and a grain silo, all sitting peacefully on the surface of the earth, seemingly oblivious to the kingdom to be ruled by the ants below. He carefully poured the enclosed white sand between the plastic windows.
 
The ants themselves were stored in a clear vinyl PVC tube with rubber stoppers sealing each end. He held the tube up to his face and observed the tightly packed ants — twenty or thirty of them—squirming against one another in the narrow confines. Attached to the vinyl tube was a bright orange label: CAUTION: DO NOT TOUCH THESE ANTS. The label informed the buyer that the ants were harvester ants that could bite, render a painful sting, or bite and sting at the same time. Certain human beings allergic to the sting of such ants might even require emergency medical treatment if they were stung. The label continued with instructions of how to handle the ants. Before unsealing the tube, one was supposed to refrigerate them for at least ten minutes so they would slow down and be less likely to escape and bite. When they were suitably sedated with cold, you were instructed to pour them into the ant farm and immediately close the top of it to shut them in. The final warning on the label was: If they escape, DO NOT TOUCH THEM.  Wear gloves when handling.
 
Rabbi Moses Glitski was not intimidated by these warnings. After all, he was a seasoned ant farmer. And in fact, after the tube of ants had sat for ten minutes in the refrigerator, he managed to pour the chilled insects into his farm and close it tightly without incident. He searched for a suitable location to display his ant farm. The windowsill abutting his desk in the second bedroom of the apartment was the perfect place for the farm, but it was occupied by the Tiffany clock that he had received on his retirement. He removed the clock from its perch, stored it in the back of the linen closet, and replaced it with the ant farm.
 
Every morning before tackling that day’s page of Talmud, he closely observed the activities of his colony of harvester ants. They wasted no time in excavating tunnels that followed serpentine routes through the pale sand. Since there were no destinations toward which the tunnels might lead, the tunnels seemed gratuitously elaborate, twisting and looping throughout the vertical rectangle of sand. The ants disposed of the sand displaced by the digging of these tunnels by piling it on the plastic farmhouse, barn, and silo that were situated above their subterranean realm, as if they were consciously seeking to obliterate all traces of the human world.
 
Rabbi Glitski diligently fed his ants every morning with choice crumbs he gleaned from the Shabbat babka or challah.
 
As he observed the ants at work, he was struck by their resolve. They seemed so united in purpose, so aligned with each other in their Herculean labor. To share such resolve in their task was indeed a wondrous thing, an admirable character trait. He vaguely recalled a Talmudic aphorism about ants. He pulled his topical index to the Talmud from his bookcase and looked for the reference. He found it in Tractate Eruvin: Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have been able to learn the commandment ‘Thou shall not steal’ from an ant.
 
Rabbi Glitski nodded his head in agreement. Clearly the Sages appreciated the nobility of ants.
 
 
Glitski was pleased with the new Talmud he’d received from his family, and he happily spent additional time forging ahead of the daily folio page that he was supposed to learn in accordance with the Daf Yomi schedule. Intermittently, he would pause in his studies and observe the small universe of the ant farm that he had created.
 
One afternoon in late March, Irv Broomstein called him. He was frantic. “You won’t believe what Rabbi Gerry said at the Zoom board meeting last night!”
 
“Who’s Rabbi Gerry?” Rabbi Glitski asked.
 
“It’s Lavine—that’s his new affectation: insisting everyone call him Rabbi Gerry instead of Rabbi Lavine. Rabbi Gerry with a G, he insists, and not with a J.”
 
“Disgraceful!”
 
“Yes, it’s ridiculous, Glits.”
 
Rabbi Glitski considered for a moment. “Deplorable!” he ruled.
 
“That’s nothing,” Irv continued. “Last night he said he’s thinking of permitting the congregation to use Zoom on Shabbat and holidays!”
 
“That’s impossible!” Rabbi Glitski declared. “There’s no halachic basis for that!”
 
“That’s what I said, but he said there are plenty of precedents in Jewish law for it, because if elderly people are isolated and can't pray with other people, then they may get depressed, get sick, and die. So in order to preserve a life, halacha can be modified, according to Rabbi Gerry.”
 
“What elderly people? We’re the elderly people, for Heaven’s sake! How did the rest of the board react?”
 
“Oh, they’re worthless,” Irv replied in disgust. “They just sit there, smile like idiots, and nod their heads.”
 
“This is the beginning of the end,” Rabbi Glitski muttered. “Actually, it is the end!”
 
“Don’t get overdramatic, Glits,” Irv advised. “Let’s see how things develop.”
 
“To use electronic devices on Shabbat! It would be preferable for us to sit alone in the dark forever and pray by ourselves than to use computers and cell phones on the Sabbath to link up with some phony prayer quorum! Let me tell you something, Irv: it’s the end of Jewish life as we know it.”
 
 At dinner that evening, he told Sharon of Rabbi Gerry’s plan.
 
“Who told you that?” she demanded.
 
“Irv. Who else?”
 
“Oh, he’s such a troublemaker! He’s just riling you up!”
 
“Irv’s my best friend!” he protested.
 
“You tell Irv that if he keeps pulling you into synagogue foolishness, I’ll call his wife!”
 
“No need to go crazy, Sharon, and no need to call his wife. I’ll tell Irv to cut it out, I promise.”
 
“I don’t understand why it still matters to you,” Sharon said. “I thought after everything that’s happened, you would feel liberated. You would feel relieved that we no longer work for four hundred crazy bosses, and that we no longer have to always be on our best behavior.”
 
“You really didn’t like it, did you? All those years…”
 
“Let me remind you of something — you didn’t like it, either. You just remember liking it, now that you don’t have it anymore.”
 
“What about the girls? How did they feel about it?”
 
“You don’t see any of your daughters living near us, do you? They all got tired of always being ‘the rabbi’s daughters’ of always being watched, of always having to be infallible. They moved as far away as they could as soon as they could, didn’t they?”
 
Rabbi Glitski frowned. “Okay,” he muttered, “I’ll stay out of it.”
 
The next morning, he noticed that the ants had stopped working and were gathered in a pulsating jumble on the surface of the ant farm. Beneath them, the meandering tunnel structure they had excavated stood empty. On top of the plastic farmhouse, now completely submerged in sand, stood an ant that seemed to be peering down at the squirming mass of other ants. Rabbi Glitski pulled his magnifying glass out of the desk drawer the glass he kept on hand to decipher secondary Talmudic commentaries that were strewn in minute script on the bottoms and sides of the pages. Under the magnification of the glass, he observed the scene unfolding before him. The ant perched on top of the mountain of sand was larger than the other ants, and it had two dark red circles banding its thorax, almost like insignia denoting that it was of a higher rank. The swollen image in the magnifying glass revealed this ant rapidly twitching its antennae, as if it were addressing its co-workers, instructing them on the next stages of the tunnel project, or perhaps exhorting them to greater effort.
 
Is he their king? he wondered. Do ants have kings?
 
Rabbi Glitski recalled a verse from the book of Proverbs. He thumbed through the Bible until he found the passage quoting King Solomon: Go to the ant, you sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise, for though she has no chief, overseer or ruler, she prepares her bread in the summer.
 
He called out to Sharon to come look at his ant farm. She entered the room wiping her hands on a dish towel. He pointed to the large ant with the red bands around its middle, and held the glass over it so Sharon could get a good look. “That big one’s the guy in charge,” he explained to his wife. “I thought he was their king, but apparently, ants don’t have kings.”
 
“That’s right,” Sharon replied. “Ants have queens, not kings.”
 
“No, they don’t.”
 
“Yes, they do. Like bees.”
 
Glitski blinked in disbelief. The verse said that ants had no ruler or overseer, and that must include queens as well as kings. “I think you might be mistaken,” he suggested.
 
Sharon looked at her husband sternly. “I’m a social studies teacher, and ants are social insects. Google it if you think you know better.” She turned abruptly and left.
 
Rabbi Glitski did not Google whether ants had queens instead of kings. As far as he was concerned, the question had been settled by the verse from Proverbs. When he turned back to regard his ant farm, everything had returned to normal; the ant workers were diligently continuing their tunneling. The larger ant with its distinctive markings was now lost from sight in the crowd of its diligent comrades. 
 
A few days later, Irv Broomstein called again. “Tonight is D-Day,” he reported. “I just got the agenda for the board meeting. Item 3 is a proposal, and I quote: ‘that the synagogue adopt Zoom for prayer services until such time as the pandemic permits in-person worship’!’”
 
“You’ve got to put a stop to it!” exclaimed Rabbi Glitski.
 
“Me? How am I supposed to do that?”
 
“I’ll give you all the counterarguments. I’ll write them out for you. You don't have to do a thing except read them out loud.”
 
“Rabbi Gerry will eat me alive. Glits, you’re the one who needs to do it.”
 
“I’m not on the board. You’re the one who is on the board.”
 
“I’ll forward you the Zoom invitation. Then you just click on it and bang—you’re in.”
 
“I don't know. They may resent me crashing the party.”
 
“Let them resent it! This is bigger than the two of us. They’ll listen to you!”
 
Rabbi Glitski sighed. “No one ever listens to me,” he replied.
 
I do, Glits. I  listen.”
 
Rabbi Glitski reflected on what Irv Broomstein was proposing. It was, indeed, bigger than the two of them. Wasn’t this a “Rabbinic Moment” — a moment that he had been told about in rabbinical school, but had never experienced in his thirty-nine years of service? The moment when a rabbi is summoned to rise above the fray and take a stand, usually an unpopular one, in order to safeguard the spiritual welfare of the congregation? This was such a moment.
 
But was it really true that there had been no Rabbinic Moments in his four-decade career? What about the time the board abruptly fired the cantor simply because he was overweight? Glitski remembered the man pleading with him to intervene, a look of wild desperation in his eyes. And the time when the Executive Director of the congregation had an affair with his secretary and left his wife and kids for her. Him they should have fired, but his cronies on the board had protected him until the sordid entanglement blew over. Or the time when it was discovered that the contractor renovating the synagogue’s catering hall wasn’t paying his workers on time—a direct violation of Torah-mandated law. Ozzie Reichler, the richest man in the community and the contractor’s father-in-law, brushed the whole thing off; after all, Ozzie insisted, he was paying half the costs. Maybe these had all been Rabbinic Moments, times when Rabbi Glitski should have stood tall and insisted that the congregation repudiate moral corruption and adhere to the essence of Jewish law. But those moments came and went, and he’d failed to confront the challenges.
 
Not this time, though. This time, he would not look the other way. He wouldn’t squander the investment he had made over his lifetime in the synagogue and its members. He asked himself the rhetorical question that Mordechai had asked Queen Esther as they plotted to thwart Haman’s designs to destroy the Jews of Persia: Who knows perhaps you attained your position in royalty for just such a crisis?
 
“Okay,” he promised Irv solemnly. “I’ll do it.”
 
Rabbi Glitski worked feverishly the entire afternoon and evening preparing his arguments to thwart Rabbi Gerry’s scheme. He shared a light dinner with Sharon, but didn’t tell her he was intending to insinuate himself into the synagogue deliberations. After dinner, he returned to his desk to put the finishing touches on his presentation. By the time the Zoom board meeting was about to begin, Rabbi Glitski was ready with chapter and verse to utterly refute Rabbi Gerry’s position on instituting Zoom prayer services. He had all of his Talmudic citations clearly written out, as well as halachic precedents from rabbinic commentators spanning the early medieval period through the twentieth century. Rabbi Glitski was totally confident in his mastery of the sources.
 
He waited ten minutes before clicking on the Zoom link that Irv had sent him. He wanted to enter the meeting after it had kicked off, hoping he could lurk there unnoticed until the ominous agenda item was raised and he could then intervene and proclaim the truth.
 
His computer worked its magic and he was transported to the meeting, except that the screen advised him that he was in the “waiting room.” The Host will soon admit you to the meeting, the message informed him.
 
He drummed his fingers on his desk, and for the first time since the morning, looked at his ant farm on the windowsill before him. It was dark outside and the activity of the ants had slowed to a crawl. So they sleep just like we do, he conjectured.
 
He looked at the clock in the corner of his screen and realized that another ten minutes had passed and he was still in the waiting room. When would the host let him in, he wondered? The meeting had been in progress almost half an hour, and the agenda item on using Zoom for religious services was the third on the list. They were probably about to begin discussing it now.
 
More minutes crawled by as Rabbi Glitski squeezed his hands together in agitation. He texted Irv’s cell phone: in waiting room, let me in.
 
Irv texted back: cannot. im not host.
 
 who host?
 
rabbi g.
 
So he would not be admitted after all. Rabbi Gerry was smart enough to know that there was no upside in tangling with him. Rabbi Gerry had realized something that only now fully dawned on Rabbi Glitski: that Glitski was an irrelevancy, someone who could be ignored with impunity. Rabbi Glitski buried his head in his hands. He thought about what the Talmud had said of Abaye’s mother and what she had told her son about how to rid oneself of a fever: sit at the crossroads, capture the ants in a tube, and carry them around with you. Hadn’t Rabbi Glitski done precisely what Abaye’s mother had prescribed? And yet, here he was—still at the crossroads, still wracked with the fever.
 
He shut down his computer, switched off the light, and went to bed.
 
 
In the morning, after prayers, Rabbi Glitski returned to his desk. He hadn't answered the late night text and phone call from Irv Broomstein reporting on the results of the board meeting. It didn’t matter: Rabbi Glitski knew how it had come out. He had now lost interest in the whole affair. He would talk to Sharon later in the day about moving away. They would make aliyah to Israel where Ruchie and Shoshi lived with the grandkids. Sharon could continue teaching high school there, if it meant that much to her. They would at last leave the Exile behind them America, the land of delusion and distraction that had seduced the Jews to abandon their principles. That’s what they would do. No one could accuse him of abandoning anyone. They probably wouldn’t even notice if he left. Sharon and he would leave as soon as they could. As soon as this lousy COVID-19 pandemic permitted them to leave.
 
He looked at his ant farm. The tunnel system had been completed: there was hardly a square inch of sand that had not been carved up by the complex filigree of narrow passageways. There were no ants below ground any longer. Instead they were all on the surface. The ants looked like they were sunning on a beach. After their monumental effort to tame their environment, they were taking their rest, lying on the sand on their backs in heaps, their legs and bellies towards the sun, its rays blazing in through the window.
 
But after a few moments, he realized that the ants in fact weren’t relaxing on their beach; they were dead.
 
What could have caused this annihilation? Rabbi Glitski wondered.
 
Maybe it was because the ants had finished their task. They had fulfilled their purpose and, having done so, there was no longer any reason to go on. Once they’d achieved their objective, they’d lost their usefulness. So they died.
 
Rabbi Glitski took out his magnifying glass and closely examined the carnage. He saw a brief ripple of movement in the pile of corpses. A head appeared, and an ant — the large one with the distinct circular markings on its thorax — struggled out of the tangle of bodies. Its antennae trembled as it sampled the air. It continued clambering over the carcasses until it stood on top of the pile. It reared up on its back legs and looked towards the heavens like Job challenging the judgments of God.
 
How could the striped ant still be alive? Wasn’t it his will that the ants had striven so hard to fulfill? Wasn’t it his vision that they’d struggled to achieve? If any of the ants had died because the task was completed, died because their life now lacked purpose, it should be this ant, the architect of the ant farm’s master plan.
 
Rabbi Glitski moved the ant farm from the windowsill and placed it on the desk before him. He focused his magnifying glass on the surviving ant. It seemed to be signaling to him with its frenzied gyrating forelegs; its mandibles clicked open and shut. “Save me!” it seemed to be calling out to him. The sole survivor — perhaps he was their king! But then he remembered that ants don't have kings. Just like us Jews, Rabbi Glitski thought. As the liturgy declared: For the kingdom is Yours, and You will reign throughout eternity in glory, for we have no king but You.  
 
Rabbi Glitski suddenly realized that he had not, after all, scrupulously followed the instructions of Abaye’s mother as to how to rid himself of the fever. He hadn’t muttered the special magical formula to the ant: Your burden upon me, and my burden upon you. The whole idea was to swap burdens with the insect — to carry his load in return for his carrying yours. He would make the exchange now; it made so much sense! Because, after all, he thought bitterly, if any human being could understand the wretchedness of endlessly digging tunnels that led nowhere; of living squeezed in between two transparent pieces of plastic so you could be scrutinized by everyone, always; of watching your subjects perish because of a lack of purpose it was Rabbi Moses Glitski. If anyone could assume the burden of the king of the ants, he could. And the king of the ants would, in turn, remove the fever.
 
With his letter opener, he pried off the top of the farm. The large ant waved energetically at him from within. Glitski carefully inserted the tip of the letter opener into the farm and brought it close to the ant. The ant clutched the tip with its stunted arms, and Glitski slowly lifted it from the confines of its plastic world and deposited it on the rough skin of his open palm.
 
Rabbi Glitski held his magnifying glass over the liberated ant who was sheltering in his hand. The ant seemed to be peering back at him, its head tilted to the side in curiosity. Glitski intoned the incantation in as solemn a voice as he could muster: Your burden upon me, and my burden upon you. He repeated the rune in Talmudic Aramaic. When he was finished, he felt a clenched fist of gloom begin to relax within him, and he imagined a cooling breeze brushing past his forehead. The ant took a few halting steps towards his wrist, and then slowly continued crawling—or was it staggering?—up his arm. Its tread tickled the papery skin of the inside of his forearm. It seemed that the ant was moving closer to him in order to say something to him, to commiserate with him about its fate.
 
The ant stopped abruptly and looked up at him. Then it turned away and sank its mandibles into the rabbi’s soft flesh. The pain of the bite was nothing, and Glitski looked down at his attacker and laughed. But the ant wasn’t through with him yet. It curled the end of its oblong abdomen backwards over its thorax towards Glitski. For an instant, he thought the ant was flashing its anus at him in mockery.
 
But it wasn't that at all; the ant was winding up to deliver its venom from the stinger mounted in the tip of its abdomen. It whipped its stinger into the robin egg blue of Glitski’s vein, which was swimming beneath the translucent underbelly of his forearm. The toxin entered his vein and coursed up his arm. The pain was searing, an agony that he had never come close to experiencing before. He flinched, flung his arm, and the ant went flying across the room. He heard it strike the wall behind him with a faint thud. For a moment, Rabbi Glitski looked inquisitively at the stinger in his arm, an arrow sticking up from the earth into which it had plummeted.
 
He clutched his left shoulder as the pain swelled within him. How could one sting be so excruciating? He felt his heart shudder, like someone had shoved it inside a wooden box and was violently shaking the box back and forth. He was in trouble. I might not survive this, he thought, as he slumped forward in his desk chair, knocking the ant farm with its cargo of ant corpses to the floor.
 
The pain leapt from his shoulder to the throbbing carotid artery in his neck. “Sharon!” Glitski called. “Sharon, help me!” Instead of a shout, a mere whisper wheezed from Glitski’s throat.
 
The venom scaled his jawbone to his face and his eyes. Finally, it penetrated his cranium. He smelled electricity scorching the air and his mouth tasted of metal, as if he had been chewing on aluminum foil. He began to gulp for air, struggling for oxygen in his heaving lungs. He looked wildly around him. Where was he? What room, what house, was this? Was this his desk? Where was his Tiffany clock, the one that cost four hundred dollars?
 
From within his agony, understanding came to Rabbi Glitski. Suddenly he knew why this one sting could crumple him like paper. These sensations assaulting him had to be symptoms of the virus, the manifestations of COVID-19 that he’d thought about every evening before falling asleep and studied every morning on awaking. He had exchanged his fever for the virus! He could feel the COVID-19 nanoball of fury with its prickling scarlet spikes as it raked his insides. It was all clear to him now: the ants had perished of COVID-19, the king of the ants must have been sick with the plague, and with his last heroic effort, he’d injected Glitski with it.
 
Who knew that COVID-19 could infect and kill insects, ants in particular? And if insects could be infected, then weren’t they a threat to human beings? Not just if they stung you like he’d been stung, but even just co-existing with you, crawling around in your cabinets, skulking between your floorboards.
 
Insight pierced the fog of his anguish. This discovery could be important. He should tell someone about this.
 
Yes, he needed to announce this great discovery that the virus and the king of the ants were in cahoots, that they were co-conspirators. He needed to make it known to the world because this information was relevant. He would organize a Zoom meeting, that’s the way to do it. That was the way people did it in this age of the pandemic. He would organize a Zoom meeting and invite everyone. All of them would mill about in the waiting room, anxious to hear this great announcement. He would be the host, and he would let in only his friends, and no one else. His friends and, of course, men and women of science. And when they were ready to hear him, to hear about his discovery, he would reveal to them what he had uncovered. And if someone interrupted him — interrupted him while he was saving the world — if someone had a problem with what he had to say, then he would mute them. In fact, before he even started his presentation, it might be better if he muted all of them so they couldn't interrupt. 

He would mute them all, and then they would finally have to listen to him.

         

Copyright © Daniel Victor 2022

Daniel Victor’s writing features observant Jewish protagonists struggling to address the challenges of modernity while adhering to tradition. The story “King of the Ants” is taken from his unpublished collection of short fiction entitled Moti’s Bride. In addition to this collection, he has completed three novels. Dan will publish his first novel entitled The Evil Inclination in 2023. He lives in New York City with his wife and three adult children.



 

Please click here to donate to JewishFiction.net  
Tax receipts will be provided for both American and Canadian donations.



Please click here if you would like to join our mailing list.