Still I am a Gadfly. Revisiting a musing from 2004, with new insights into myself and the topics at hand.
In the Haftarah for parashat Bo, which is from Jeremiah 46:13-28, we read of Egypt’s punishment for her sins. Jeremiah was predicting Egypt’s destruction by Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. This Haftarah is an interesting parallel to the story of the final plagues that we read in Bo. Jeremiah even compares Egypt’s coming invaders to locusts (46:23.)
I love this Haftarah, this passage from Jeremiah a great deal, because of one simple word that appears in 46:20.
עֶגְלָ֥ה יְפֵֽה־פִיָּ֖ה מִצְרָ֑יִם קֶ֥רֶץ מִצָּפ֖וֹן בָּ֥א בָֽא׃
Egypt is a handsome heifer—
A gadfly from the north is coming, coming! (JPS)
That word is keretz.
The word itself is of somewhat ambiguous derivation, and most often thought to be a cognate of karatz, from the root quf-resh-tzadee, קרץ, meaning to nip or pinch. Thus keretz is thought to mean a nipper or biter, i.e. an insect that nips, bites or stings. Of course the reason I like this word so much is because it is translated by the JPS committee as “gadfly.”
I have often thought of myself as a gadfly, and one who actively relishes that role. In my original research for this musing back in 2004, I discovered to my chagrin that perhaps “gadfly” is not exactly the right description for what it is I often do. This dictionary definition, courtesy of www.merriam-webtser.com says:
1 : any of various flies (as a horsefly, botfly, or warble fly) that bite or annoy livestock
2 : a person who stimulates or annoys especially by persistent criticism
Well, that second definition brought me up a little short (no pun intended for those who know me personally.) I do intend to be a person who stimulates, but I certainly don’t intend to be one who constantly criticizes to the point of annoyance.
Nonetheless, how I see myself and how others perceive me can sometimes be at odds. I have been told many times over the years that some people find my gadfly nature as obnoxious, offensive, or rude. I used to simply reply “that isn’t my intention” as if that were adequate. I have learned, over the years, to temper both my reaction and my proclivity to be the gadfly. Communication does require that oft overlooked third component of repeating the other party’s response to insure that you understood it. Of course, this can lead into a recursive loop-even more so in a society where most people are listening not to understand, but to be able to respond.
So yes, I’ll take it as a given that at times my gadfly style of engagement can be off-putting, even offensive to some. Since I so easily fall into the pattern of writing/speaking in the manner of a gadfly, I have tried consciously, in recent years, to refrain from putting in my oar too often, and when I do, to not always offer ,my thoughts in the form of a critique or challenge.
Nevertheless, I have a dilemma. Isn’t part of the point of being a gadfly to be persistent to the point of annoyance? To say the things that people don’t want to hear? To speak truth to power (well maybe that’s being a bit too lofty-but then again, maybe not?) Sometimes, gadfly types have to accept the risk of being unpopular. How many times have I referred to the Elie Wiesel story:
One day a Tzadik came to Sodom; He knew what Sodom was, so he came to save it from sin, from destruction. He preached to the people. “Please do not be murderers, do not be thieves. Do not be silent and do not be indifferent.” He went on preaching day after day, maybe even picketing. But no one listened. He was not discouraged. He went on preaching for years. Finally someone asked him, “Rabbi, why do you do that? Don’t you see it is no use?” He said, “I know it is of no use, but I must. And I will tell you why: in the beginning I thought I had to protest and to shout in order to change them. I have given up this hope. Now I know I must picket and scream and shout so that they should not change me.
I can see/hear the eye rolls now. Am I comparing myself to a biblical prophet? A great tzadik? Of course not. If Wiesel tried to teach us anything, it was about the inhumanity of man, and how we have to fight it. Of our responsibility to not be bystanders. More eye rolls, right? Now I’m drawing a moral equivalence between my being a gadfly and the ethical lessons of the Shoah? No. Many, if not most of the things upon which I comment are quotidian, and do not rise to the level of those actions and behaviors of humanity which compelled the great prophets and tzadikim speak out.
I just want people to think about things, to see and consider viewpoints other than their own, and I genuinely want to help people be better than they already are in everything that they do. I apologize to those who find my methodology off-putting. Aware that some people do, I work to mitigate my tendencies, but I can’t (and won’t) completely eliminate them, and actually do believe they can, at times, serve some greater good. Along with my piano playing, teaching, and other skills I contribute, my gadfly nature is offered in the same spirit in which I offer all those other things with which I have been gifted. Ones gifts, however gladly and freely offered, are not always welcome or accepted. That’s a price and a reality with which I can live. (Damn, just broke my promise to be less of a grammar prescriptivist.)
So let’s turn this back to Torah, and our parasha. From Pharaoh’s point of view, even with G”d’s hardening of the heart, Moses and Aaron were a bit like gadflies. Persistent little devils. (Or was G”d really the annoying one in this scenario? Would the Hebrew G”d be gadfly-like to Pharaoh if he knew he was being deliberately manipulated so that he and his people would suffer more show that G”d could show off…but that’s a musing for another time-continued from last week’s musing, perhaps.)
And, although we don’t really have records to prove it, it’s quite possible that Jeremiah and other prophets were thought of like gadflies. They were persistent, they were critical, and most likely, at times, annoying.
Is there another way to describe or define a gadfly? Must it be in negative terms like “annoying?”
To my rescue in 2004 came traditional American sloppiness with the English language. Merriam-Webster notwithstanding, a search of the web and of current literature reveals that gadfly has taken on a broader meaning.
1. A persistent irritating critic; a nuisance.
2. One that acts as a provocative stimulus; a goad.
3. Any of various flies, especially of the family Tabanidae, that bite or annoy livestock and other animals
That somewhat morphed meaning number two is pretty much how I like to see myself. I like to take controversial positions to spark discussion, or to insure that different sides of an issue get heard and considered. It’s as if I am speaking/writing accompanied by a wink or raised eyebrow or other gesture that attempts to communicate that “I might not really believe this, but this ought to spark some discussion.”
In point of fact, there are three biblical citations for this root being used to mean to wink:
1. קָרַץ עַיִן Ps 3519 Pr 1010 and קָרַץ בְּעֵינָיו Pr 613 to screw up one’s eyes, blink (as an expression of derision or mockery).
Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 1148). Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Now, that “as an expression of derision or mockery” ought to give me pause, and may help explain why people often react as they do to my gadfly writings or words. I certainly don’t intend to be derisive or mocking, however I can see how others might interpret me that way. It’s hard sometimes in writing and in electronic media to convey that body language (though emojis have come to fill as significant role in doing so, and I make liberal use of them in that fashion. Yet emojis, too, might be subject to different interpretations. Is always a sign of positive intent? Is always a sign of negative intent? Can an be loving?
When we use these shortcuts in place of body language, when we write in the style of a gadfly, as I do, we must accept the risk that we could be potentially hurtful to someone, even if unintentional. This was brought sharply into focus for me the other day when a friend posted a meme of Facebook seeming to wax nostalgic at parents scolding their crying child with “if you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to stop crying about.” I responded with the comment that I wasn’t sure this was something for which we ought to be nostalgic. Of course I assumed the OP thought of this nostalgically, but they too later commented it brought them up short and made them think.
Also some days ago, I posted about being very offended by a very heightist meme depicting DJT’s head on the body of a little boy and referring to him as a “little man.” I found, and still find the linking of height and maturity in this manner as being yet another form of heightist micro-aggression. Because I’m of extreme short-stature with otherwise normal body dimensions compared to the typical U.S. male (I’m 4’-9” tall) I’m sensitive about this. I think people can see my point, and indeed most of the comments on my post were supportive and understanding. I’m pleased it didn’t attract negative comments and people telling me to stop being a snowflake, though I imagine with wider distribution or the simply luck of exposure, it could have happened.
So that’s an example of when my being a bit of a gadfly seemed to be understood. (It’s gadfly in nature because it’s not something that people usually think about, and because it challenged a meme which mocked someone that I and most of my online friends would normally want to see mocked-although even realizing that ought to give me a little pause, no?)
I do have one online nemesis (but also a friend) who regularly takes me to task for mostly saying and sharing negative opinions of things online, and questioning why. I accept the critique even though I may disagree with it, and sometimes I do argue back. My nemesis’ critique of me may be meant sincerely just as written, but it could also be a bit of the gadfly getting gadflied by another.
I guess I sometimes look at it this way: I have a limited amount of time in my life. If I choose to use that time to post a critique or review of something, it is because I feel the object being critiqued, or those involved in its creation to be worthy of my time to critique it. To critique from a place of disappointment for the efforts of the creators can be a loving act.
In looking over the history of my own work, I perceive that I have often posted praise and positive comments. Many of my critiques are part and parcel of a review or comment that also includes praise. Nevertheless, I recognize my own proclivity to be critical. I work to mitigate it. Yet sometimes it takes over, and I am sometimes not self-aware enough to realize it. It is and always will be a constant struggle for me. Yet I do believe my gadfly nature can be and sometimes is a force for good in the universe.
I have a younger friend, someone with his own share of challenges in life. Decades ago, I played gadfly to his youthful enthusiasm with a little negative psychology and suggesting he wasn’t ready to do something. Of course he rose to the occasion, as I had intended he would. He has come to recognize this, and continues to grow and thrive.
When I first wrote on this topic back in 2004, I neglected to do as much research as I should. As you have read, it can have a broader meaning in some places in the Tanakh as a wink or screwing up of the eyes. I learned that in modern Israeli Hebrew, this root is used to mean “to wink.” לִקְרוֹץ
Now, if that doesn’t fit how I really see myself acting the gadfly, nothing does. There’s a wink accompanying my writing or my speaking at times when I am playing the gadfly.
In 2004, I enumerated these thoughts relative to the parasha and other parts of Torah relative to how I can act like a gadfly.
Like asking if it was really necessary for all the Egyptian first-born sons to die? Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you, G”d?
Like asking if verse 12:11 is the first commandment to eat fast-food?
Like asking why strangers in the community will be cut off just as an Israelite would be for eating food with leavening in it during the proscribed time for the Festival in 12:19, yet in 12:43 strangers are prohibited from eating the Passover offering.
Well, you get the idea. There’s plenty enough fodder in parashat Bo and all the rest of Tanakh. In daily life. In the world. Help yourself. Go and be a keretz yourself. The world needs more of them.
©2019 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Bo 5778 – Sub-contracting Death
Bo 5777 – Good Loser (Revised 5763)
Bo 5776 – Four Strikes and You’re…Well…(a fractured midrashic fairy tale)
Bo 5775 – Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5774 – Spellcheck On My hand
Bo 5773 – Dear G”d…Love, Pharaoh
Bo 5772 – Lifting the Cover of Darkness
Bo 5771 – Keretz MiTzafon-Again! (not the same as 5769)
Bo 5769-Keretz MiTzafon
Bo 5768 – Good Loser (Redux 5763)
Bo 5767-Teach Your Children Well (Redux 5762)
Bo 5766 – Random Disjunctions and Convergences (Redux 5760)
Bo 5765-Four Strikes and You’re…Well…
Bo 5764-Keretz Ani
Bo 5763 -Good Loser
Bo 5761-Cover of Darkness
Bo 5762-Teach Your Children Well