Peretz’s “The Hermit and the Bear”

Polish writer I. L. Peretz wrote a little tale titled “The Hermit and The Bear.” The story is a Yiddish folk tale, a little morality tale, that begins: “Once there was a man who could not abide evil.”

The man owned a little shop and turned it over to his wife while he occupied a room of the house to study the Torah and Kaballah and to pray. But even here was evil. So he decided to become a hermit. The man left his home and went to live in a corner of the synagogue. But even here was evil. People came and went and talked, so the hermit decided to go searching for a city that had no evil but couldn’t find one. So the hermit gave up civilization and traveled to forests, hills, and valleys, searching out a good habitation far from evil. He settled by the bank of a river.

But even by the riverbank there was evil. The water rushed and ran wild, overturning trees and flooding the land. And the fish and creatures were at constant war with one another. “So hermit has no peace and cannot sleep. As for running away — there’s no place left to run.” The hermit concludes that he won’t go searching any further and that evil occurs “because the soul of the world is asleep.”

The hermit’s logic is that when people are asleep they have no order or control over themselves. Their limbs may go here and there because the soul is asleep and not awake and present to control things. (Peretz doesn’t mention dreaming; his hermit is a simple soul.) Similarly, the world thrashes about because the soul of the world is asleep.

The hermit, in short, figures out that to awaken the soul of the world he must meditate and avoid every distraction such as a crow cawing or a bird singing, and meditate especially at night. But the river-spirit learns of what he is doing and seethes and roars and floods, disrupting the hermit’s concentration. He does not want to leave his new-found place and search for a place by a quieter river. Evil is everywhere, after all. Now, the hermit has learned a few spells in his reading and thinking, and after more fasting and meditation he goes out ready to tame the river. The hermit pronounces a holy spell and now the river is in a serious rage. It hurls a mighty wave at the hermit.

The wave turns into a bear, a “hairy black bear with bloodshot eyes” and the bear runs around “roaring and snarling, interfering with the hermit’s meditations.”

The hermit decides to quiet the bear. He goes out and sees the bear raging about, and when the hermit looks at him the bear falls, seething and foaming angrily. But the hermit looks at the bear with loving-kindness.

And there’s a war between the two sets of eyes — the hermit’s brimming with love and pity, the bear’s filled with hatred and rage. But the hermit’s eyes are strong. Slowly, slowly, they begin to conquer those of the bear.

And at last, the bear comes humbly to the hermit with a look in his eyes as if to submit peacefully to his wisdom, to be his humblest servant. And the hermit looks tenderly upon the bear and lovingly caresses him.

And so the hermit is ready to return peacefully to his thoughts and meditations, to think on what more he needs in order to awaken the soul of the world.

But there is nothing left for him to think. He himself no longer possess his former soul, because in the same measure that the bear has ascended to him, he has descended to the bear.

He sense a weariness in all his limbs: his eyelids grow heavy. Falteringly, he goes to his bed, and the bear follow him and lies down beside him.

There is no end to evil. The bear has become partly human, and the human partly a bear. And a saint who lies down with a bear cannot awaken the soul of the world.