My new column is up at Moment Magazine:
My son and I found the story one Shabbat when he was home from the army. We slipped out of morning services a bit early to study Vayikra Rabba, an ancient collection of midrash. If I hadn’t decided to make aliyah before he was born, he’d now be coming home for weekends from college, not the IDF. If we lived in America, perhaps his Hebrew wouldn’t be good enough to study midrash in the original, though that’s less certain. Sometimes I wonder about whether there’s a grand meaning to that choice I made years ago, before he was born, some significance an inch beyond the reach of words.
That morning, though, we were just reading a strange set of folk tales inserted into the midrash. In one, a man’s wreath of magical herbs protects him from a snake’s venom. In a second, a hoopoe wants to build his nest in a hole in a stump in a rabbi’s orchard. There’s a board nailed over the hole, so the hoopoe brings an herb that dissolves the nail. The rabbi hides the herb so thieves don’t use it to “destroy creation.” In another tale, a man sets off to make aliyah from Babylon. Along the road he sits down to rest and sees two birds fighting. One kills the other—and then brings an herb and places it on the corpse, which returns to life.
“He [the man] said, ‘I should take that herb and bring the dead of the Land of Israel to life.’ As he ran, he saw a dead fox on the road. He said, ‘I’ll try it out on this fox.’ He put the herb on the fox and it lived. He kept going till he got to the Ladder of Tyre [a ridge at the edge of the Land of Israel], where he saw a slain lion on the road. He said, ‘I’ll try it on this lion.’ He put the herb on it and it came to life, and stood and ate him.”
The midrash tacks on a moral, “Don’t do favors for an evil person, lest evil comes to you.” But we realized that this isn’t a Jewish addition to Aesop’s Fables. It’s an allegory on a different plane. At first, I saw it as a welcome rabbinic warning, written 1,500 years in advance, against the prevailing theology among religious Zionists today—the belief that Israel’s creation and its conquests show that God is bringing redemption. On second thought, I realized that the rabbis never speak in one voice. On third thought—but let’s get back to that story. …
Read the rest here, and come back to SoJo to comment.