Monday, April 13, 2009

My Grandson is an Honor Student at Yeshivah of Lydda

I was charmed and intrigued by the aggadah about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and his custom of listening to his grandson chant a portion of scripture every Friday afternoon. One Friday he forgets and goes straight to the bath house. On his way in, he remembers and runs back out of the bath (although the rabbis disagree about whether he is clothed or naked at this point, it is amusing to imagine him running down the street in a towel or robe) to listen to his grandchild. When his student questions his decision to halt in the midst of his washing (something he had expressly forbidden in the past), Rabbi Joshua explains that hearing one's grandchild recite Torah is like "listening to it at Mount Sinai." He quotes Devarim 4:9-10, punctuating the verses differently from the verse divisions we have, to prove his opinion.
At first, I expected Rabbi Joshua to cite the educational benefits to his grandson as the reason he takes this tradition so seriously; it was a surprise to me to discover that Rabbi Joshua sees this mostly as a benefit to himself. Then, it made me feel guilty about all of those shabbatot I have grumbled through the stumbling leyning of b'nei mitzvah boys and girls. Clearly, there is some important element here about continuity, about how satisfying it feels to pass on one's heritage, knowledge, and values to the next generation. That isn't really what Rabbi Joshua is saying, either, though. To him, listening to his grandson read is like actually experiencing the establishment of the covenant at Mount Sinai. What could that mean?
This aggadah reminded me of Pesach and one of the unique aspects of the Exodus story as related in Shemot. Even while God is giving the Israelites instructions about how to ready themselves for leaving Egypt, the text also discusses the events as a holiday in the future. The laws and rules about how the story should be retold and commemorated in the future are given simultaneously with the more immediately applicable instructions about the Exodus. It is almost as if the telling and retelling of the story, the act of passing the story on to the next generation, overshadows the actual events even as they are taking place. The actual liberation is less important than the fact that it becomes a road map, metaphor, and blueprint for future liberations.
The text of the Haggadah emphasizes the act of transmitting this story to the next generations so that they actually re-experience the Exodus themselves. "B'chol dor vador..." we say-- "In every generation, a person should look upon him/herself as if he/she went out from Egypt." And although Rabbi Joshua quotes Devarim chapter 4, this story made me think of 5:3 -- "It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with the living, every one of us who is here today." In essence, the covenant is not only transmitted through teaching, but it actually re-established with each successive generation through the act of the retelling.
In his book "Exodus and Liberation," Michael Walzer discusses the covenant made at Sinai as a kind of proto social contract, in which a cycle of "public committment, instruction, prophetic complaint, and public recommitment" (p.95) results in a covenant that is truly renewed in each generation. It is this renewal that Rabbi Joshua hears in his grandson's recitation each Friday afternoon.

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