A Jewish Fable Has An Argument, Not a Moral

Gershom Gorenberg

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.

1 thought on “A Jewish Fable Has An Argument, Not a Moral”

  1. I lifted this from a website but it’s what I was hearing in arguments and I assume it’s still being used. The interpretation in those arguments is based on the rationalization that Palestinians are the evil ones. This is to help those who need it (because of conscience) to feel justification for harsh policies and the consequent suffering of those others. This has evolved to something that is no longer actually felt or seen.

    Kol mi shena`asa rahaman bimqom akhzari
    Sof shena`asa akhzari bimqom rahaman

    Qohelet Raba, 7:16


    All who are made to be compassionate in the place of the cruel
    In the end are made to be cruel in the place of the compassionate


    Those who are kind to the cruel, in the end will be cruel to the kind.

    This sounds similar to your: “Don’t do favors for an evil person, lest evil comes to you.”

    For me- it starts with naming evil, naming the evil people.

    You can read the Talmud and the Bible and make it fit your predispostion. It’s sort of like the I Ching. When you “throw your changes”, your subconscious comes forward.

    So it is futile to point to what is written and say this is what is meant. The test can only be what it could mean or does mean to an individual (which is most important).

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