It is the story of time-travel tourism in which a hunter pays an enormous fee to be whisked back in time to hunt dinosaurs, specifically, the heart-stopping T-Rex.
Because the time-travel experts believed that small actions could impact history in unimaginable ways, there were a couple of rules, specified by the lead tour guide, Travis:
1. The hunting party, Eckels, Billings, and Kramer, must agree to only shoot specific animals which time travel had ascertained would die within moments anyway
2. The hunters must never leave a specially-built path which hovers above the landscape.
Eckels is a loud-mouth coward who promptly loses his cool when he hears the “thunder” of his approaching shidduch (match)—the terrible T-Rex. In his dread, he falls off the path.
Quickly, the guides shoot the beast, just a few moments before a tree was supposed to fall on it, thereby, it is hoped, averting future disaster. But nothing may be left behind in time, so Travis forces the feckless Eckels to remove the bullets from its corpse, threatening to leave him behind if he doesn’t get on with it.
Finally, the mis-adventurers return to the present, Eckels included, but when they do, they notice some changes—minor ones at first. For example, the spelling of some common words have changed. But soon their worst fears are realized: they realize that their trip back in time has changed the present in ways unimaginable.
They see the news: A tyrannical fascist named Deutscher, who had most definitely lost the Presidential elections shortly before the safari began, was now president!
Eckels is distraught. He peers down and notices that his boots are covered with muck, and examines them. There, on the sole of one, a tiny, partially-crushed butterfly is wedged into the muddy treads.
Can you imagine how you would feel?
Worse yet, Eckels pleads to return to the past to undo the damage, yet Travis is enraged; he unlocks his gun’s safety and the story ends with a different kind of “sound of thunder.”
Now, repairing the past is truly impossible.
I remember reading the story over and over again as a child, enthralled by the notion that one tiny action could alter history so dramatically. I re-imagined Eckel’s feelings over and over again. I felt sorry for him!
The story was important to me because an adult (and I knew Bradbury was an important adult because he wrote books), confirmed my innate belief that each life had some deep meaning. Existence (the butterfly’s in the story, mine) mattered!
This was despite the fact I was never given this message growing up—status, things, progress, beauty, intellect, and most of all, applaudable achievements—these were deep and important.
But here was Mr. Ray Bradbury, who wore glasses and wrote books of stories that made me think, saying that each life had intrinsic importance.
Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder is the origin of the popular term, “The Butterfly Effect.” It’s also, I think, a very Jewish story.
Jewish tradition teaches that a Jew must live with an awareness of the import of each of his or her deeds, words, and even thoughts.
The fact that the little things we do can trigger significant ripples in history is illustrated by a true story:
There was a Jewish man living in a town in Germany who always smiled and said “Good morning” to his neighbors, as Jewish law tells us we must do. During the Holocaust, he was forced into captivity in a concentration camp. By Divine Providence, one of the officers was one of the neighbors he had smiled at so sincerely each morning before the war. The officer saved his life by slipping him extra food and seeing he got the medicine he needed.
(I may be remembering the details wrong, if I am, please enlighten me!)
Of course, we might not be able to see or understand the “reward” or consequences for our deeds; we merely need the emunah (faith) to believe that everything we do has significance.
We’re taught that the reward of a mitzvah (a good or kindly deed as desired by Hashem, G-d, and described by Jewish law) is the chance to do another mitzvah, among other things.
The main motivation to do acts of kindness and other mitzvos is best when it is internally generated—unlike Eckels, who sees the external horrors his actions have caused and truly and remorsefully desires to go back and correct the damage he’s done.
When motivation to do good is internalized and rooted in awe and love—of Hashem, Torah, and our brothers and sisters, and fellow men and women, all of Creation—we generally think before we act and, even if we do err, we have the power to rectify our mistakes or intentional missteps, at least on a spiritual level.
A Rabble of Butterflies
Today, when we use the term “the butterfly effect” we are referring to any small action that might have unintended and un-predictable consequences.
But the term was coined specifically to describe a weather event. Science tells us that it’s conceivable that a puff of wind, caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, might be the catalyst for a series of weather-pattern changes that could turn a breezy day sometime in the future, into a blizzard.
Meteorologists know that a small column of unexpected warm air rising from the ocean can dramatically change their pat prediction for next Tuesday, and that’s why the weather is at best, an educated guessing game. And when you take into consideration all the possible events that might effect the weather and that do occur at any moment of time—methane gas released from thousands of cattle shipped across country; a World Series ball game and the traffic jams it causes; an explosion at a power plant; and so on—the flapping of a butterfly’s wings (or rabble of butterfly wings), probably does affect the weather somewhat.
If the flapping of butterfly wings can create a breeze or even a storm, imagine what one human action renders possible (naturally, being a blogger,flapping mouths spring to mind).
Jewish mysticism teaches us that even if our actions appear to have very small ramifications, they create a very powerful effect reaching to, and affecting, even the Heavenly realms! In other words, the effects of our actions, for all intents and purposes, are global and beyond.
Of course, each of us must humbly acknowledge that we are unable to see far and wide enough to see all these effects.
I like to think of the floating path Ray Bradbury’s story as the “narrow bridge” spoken of by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. He says:
All the world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is to have no fear at all!
Hunting animals is against Jewish law, but still, let’s say, for the purposes of this analogy, we are hunters and we are hunting…truth. To find truth, but not make a balagan, we’ve got to cleave to the path. To walk that path requires us:
to have emunah peshuta (simple faith)
to be dedicated to spiritual growth and improving the world, via the good deeds we call mitzvos
to spend time in prayer and prayerful meditation, talking to Hashem, revealing our true selves to Him and asking Him to help us
to be committed to learning who we are and what our mission is via the Torah given to us by Hashem
and, to cling to the Tzaddik and to accept and follow his guidance, with humility.
Rebbe Nachman explained why his Torah path was so sweet and wondrous and compelling:
…I walk a new path, one that no man has ever walked before, nor any creature since the time the Torah was received. Even though it is a very old path, nevertheless it is completely new.
But, what happens if, despite your cleated boots and best intentions, you slip off the path?
Don’t worry, you aren’t Eckels, though there may be consequences, certainly problems resulting from your fall. These consequences may be challenging to correct. Very challenging.
But Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says:
If you believe you can damage, believe you can repair.
Sure, it’s a lot harder to repair something damaged than to keep things in good repair in the first place, but remember: a slide, slip, or fall is also part of the Hashem’s big picture. Don’t beat yourself up! Apologize, correct what you can, and if you aren’t sure what to do, speak to a Rav or other Torah teacher or guide who is wise enough help you figure out what the best way to fix things might be.
Then, pick yourself up, clean off your dirty boots, and keep going forward, with love and joy. The primary point at which Bradbury and I part company is at the end of his story: the presumably fatal gun shot. Once Travis or Eckel’s was dead, neither could go back in time and fix things.
That deadly ending (whether of murder or suicide, Bradbury doesn’t reveal) is the true step off the path. The story ends in bitterness, despair, and the ultimate cowardice.
In a Jewish life, ending it all is simply not an option.
As a child, I remember thinking about death and existence (again, at the same age, around nine or ten). I came to my own conclusion: However you died, whatever frame of mind you were in, that’s how you were stuck for all eternity. My mind kind of cobbled-together this belief (in fact, I wrote a poem about it, much to the puzzlement of my school teachers).
I was shocked when thirty or so years later, I found out that my idea wasn’t so far off the mark.
Two weeks agao, on Zos Hanukah (the eight, last day of Hanukah) I had a conversation with Rebbetzin Aidel Miller who was visiting NY from Eretz Yisroel.
She said, and I am paraphrasing: Can you imagine how horrible it is once you’re dead? You can’t come back and fix anything, you’re stuck with all your stuff, forever! You have to be happy, HAPPY, now, so happy that you can fix things!
Despite my regrets, her passion was so contagious, I felt like dancing!
Rebbe Nachman understood that happiness was integral to the actual process we call living; without it, the whole-shebang we call life isn’t really living at all. The Rebbe said:
Always remember: Happiness is not a side matter in your spiritual journey; it is essential.
So, go ahead and be the butterfly, but be one who’s aware of the power of your wings.