My Rat’s Tale

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09 Nov 2005

Early one morning, I entered my kitchen and found a persimmon and an apple partly gnawed. Bits of persimmon skin were splattered on my kitchen counter. Horrified and disgusted, I shrieked for my husband. He called the exterminator.

The exterminator verified that it was a rat, not a mouse. He set three rat traps with chocolate, commenting that rats love chocolate. (A chocoholic myself, I pretended not to hear that I have any affinity with repulsive rodents.)

Although I’m always the first one up and the first one to enter the kitchen, the next morning I cowered in our bedroom until my husband got up, so that he could dispose of the dead rat without my having to see it. Call me a sexist, but it’s manifest to me that removing dead rats is a man’s job, and all the women I know, even staunch feminists, agree.

Finally my half-asleep, pajama-clad husband dutifully made the rounds of the three traps and reported to me: No rat.

However, another persimmon had been gnawed. And under the milchig (dairy) sink, I found droppings. The rat had entered the under-sink cabinet from below, through the open space around the drain pipe, and had been feasting on our garbage. I shivered and called the exterminator again.

He moved two of the traps into the cabinet, right next to the drain pipe. The third he left under the refrigerator.

The next morning, as I tried to recite my morning prayers in my room, with my mind on the squished rat under my kitchen sink, my husband again checked and reported: No rat.

“Let’s give it another night,” my husband suggested. “No rat is that smart.”

The next morning, the kitchen was flooded with an inch of water. The rat, apparently thirsty, had gnawed a hole in the plastic tubing to our water filter. The hole was barely two feet away from the shunned trap under the refrigerator.

I called the exterminator again. He was baffled. He had been catching rats for 27 years with those very same chocolate-baited traps. No rat had ever before eluded him.

This time he came with a pump sprayer filled with rat repellent. We knew the rat was living under the cabinet, in the three-inch space between the cabinet and the floor. First the exterminator put a trap right in front of the hole near the wall that the rat had been using to enter that space. Then he started spraying under the sink, right into the circle around the drain pipe. We waited for the rat to escape out his hole right into the waiting trap.

We waited. And waited. No rat.

Eventually, the exterminator said he had other work to do, and excused himself. My husband went to his Talmud class. I went to my computer, two rooms away, and tried to work. Two hours later, I heard a trap spring.

“Finally,” I thought. I waited, cringing by my computer, for my husband to come home and remove the dead rat. When he entered the kitchen, he reported: The trap beside the hole had indeed sprung, but there was no trace of a rat. Somehow the rat had managed to move the trap, thus setting it off, and had scampered to freedom-somewhere else in the house.

For the next two days, there was no sign of the rat. While our night-time ritual now included locking our fruit bowl in the oven and the ripening tomatoes in the microwave, I decided to leave one persimmon on the kitchen floor, to determine whether the rat was still with us.

The next morning, I found the persimmon, gnawed, on the floor on the far side of the fleishig (meat) counter. At my wits’ end, I called the exterminator for the fourth time-a record in his long career of eliminating vermin. While we were loathe to cause suffering to any of God’s creatures-even a rat-and had preferred the traps because they killed quickly, now in desperation I told the exterminator to bring poison.

He came armed with two glue traps and three kinds of poison. He found a large hole a few inches away from the gnawed, schlepped persimmon. Clearly, the rat had found a new home beneath the fleishig counter. It had only one exit. The exterminator put two packets of poison which take three days to work inside the hole. Then he set the two glue traps outside the hole, so that it would be impossible to exit the hole without getting caught. Then he put fast-acting poison powder on the gnawed persimmon, and placed it on the first glue trap, so that the rat, instead of dying a slow and gruesome death from the glue trap, would eat the poisoned persimmon and die quickly. Just for good measure, in case the rat was hiding elsewhere, he put another poisoned persimmon on the other side of the glue traps. It was a comprehensive, fool-proof system.

It didn’t work. The next morning my husband reported: No rat, and the persimmons had not been touched.

Incredulous, we stood there staring at our infallible, failed system. Clearly, something uncanny was happening here. Since God runs the world, and all normal means to eliminate this rat had failed, perhaps God was trying to tell us something. But what?

I went to ask Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, a Kabbalist who lives in our neighborhood. Looking straight at me, Rabbi Sheinberger declared: “You need a tikkun [spiritual rectification].”

“Me?” I asked, chastened. “What tikkun do I need?”

“What does the rat say in Perek Shira?” Rabbi Sheinberger queried. Perek Shira is an ancient poem, attributed to King David, in which every creature and natural phenomenon, from the sky to the desert, from rivers to lightning, from snails to whales, praises God with a particular Biblical verse which hints at the essence of that creation.

My friend Sara Yehudit, closely following my rat saga, had called me that morning with the startling news: In Perek Shira, the rat proclaims, “Kol haneshama tihallel Yah, Halleluyah!– The entire soul praises God. Hallelujah!” This is the final, and perhaps most exalted, verse in the Book of Psalms. And it is ascribed to the rat!

I dutifully answered Rabbi Sheinberger: “Kol haneshama tihallel Yah, Halleluyah!”

“The tikkun,” he said with authority, “is to stop complaining.”

I stared at him as if he had uncovered a secret vice hidden even from me. Complain? Me? I’m no kvetch.

Rabbi Sheinberger continued. “The sages read the verse with slightly different vowels to mean that with every breath you should praise God. Everyone of us has received such a wealth of blessings that we should be making a feast of gratitude to God every day. If we don’t do that, at the very least we should be praising God with every breath.”

I went home, my mind spinning. If I want to get rid of the rat, I need to praise God with every breath and stop complaining. But do I kvetch that much?

That night I removed both glue traps. I left one persimmon laced with the fast-acting poison. In the morning, there was no sign of the rat, and the persimmon was untouched.

As usual, I walked my nine-year-old son part-way to school. My son hates this 40-minute walk, which his physical therapist insists is good for him. As usual, he stalled, and resisted, and walked at a snail’s pace. When my husband returned from synagogue after his morning prayers, I went to greet him with a report about my frustrating morning. Somewhere between my bedroom and the front door, Rabbi Sheinberger’s words flashed through my mind. I realized: This is complaining! I turned my frown into a wide smile, and greeted my husband with an enthusiastic, “Good morning! Isn’t it a wonderful morning to be alive? Kol haneshama tihallel Yah, Halleluyah!”

Five minutes later I found the rat, dead behind our refrigerator.

I did not realize how much I complained. I thought I was simply reporting: my frustrations with the children, how difficult it was to find a parking space, how the new cordless telephone, one week after the warranty expired, stopped working. My newly-installed, post-rat complaint radar, however, detected an incessant habit of framing experiences negatively.

I asked myself, Why? Since how we perceive situations is a choice we make, why would anyone choose misery?

The answer is part ego, part culture. In television adventure shows, a character’s cleverness/resourcefulness/heroism stands out only in relation to the difficulty of the problem s/he faces. The heroes of “Mission Impossible” were heroes only because their mission was almost impossible.

My ego must have internalized this point early on: If I wanted to be regarded as clever/resourceful/heroic, I was compelled to emphasize the difficulty of the situation facing me. After all, how would my husband know what an expert mother I am if I didn’t apprise him of the childrearing calamities I had to deal with today? How would my friend know what a forbearing and saintly person I am if I didn’t tell her the challenges I face from my neighbor?

In addition, my cultural indoctrination insists that people who always smile are somehow shallow. Don’t they keep up with current events-with current wars, famines, and epidemics? What could they possibly be happy about?

As a college student in the sixties, studying melancholic poets from Baudelaire to T.S. Eliot, I somehow assimilated the notion that people who are depressed are deep. In fact, on our Brandeis campus, if you weren’t depressed, there was something wrong with you.

The Preposterous Question

Years ago, I took a small group of women to get blessings from the tzaddik Rav Yaakov Moshe Kramer. While the first woman met privately with the tzaddik, the rest of us sat in the living room with his wife, Rebbetzin Haya Sara Kramer.

Rebbetzin Haya Sara was a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of twenty, had lost her entire family in Auschwitz. She never had any children, had lived in abject poverty all her life, and was never without a smile.

The women must have looked glum, because Rebbetzin Haya Sara encouraged them saying, “Don’t worry. Each of you will receive the blessing you came for.”

One woman, who was having marital problems, asked: “Yes, but how can we be happy while we’re waiting for the blessing to materialize?”

Rebbetzin Haya Sara looked shocked. “How can you be happy?” she asked incredulously. “How can you not be happy? You have eyes and they see. You have ears and they hear. You have legs and they take you where you want to go. How can you not be happy?”

It took twelve years for me to internalize Rebbetzin Devorah’s recipe for happiness. Catching on to the secret of happiness was even harder than catching a rat.

This article is reprinted with permission from

Sara Yoheved Rigler is a graduate of Brandeis University. Her spiritual journey took her to India and through fifteen years of teaching Vedanta philosophy and meditation. Since 1985, she has been practicing Torah Judaism. A writer, she resides in the Old City of Jerusalem with her husband and children. Her articles have appeared in: Jewish Women Speak about Jewish Matters, Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, and Heaven on Earth.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.