Number 29. The Rabbis and I
Richard Peterson


No-one, prior to my arrival in lsrael ever suggested that rabbinic literature might make good devotional reading. It came as a pleasant surprise, as I began to read through my second-hand English-Hebrew prayer book1 during Sabbath morning services at the local synagogue. I would come away feeling as I have occasionally felt on leaving a liturgical Anglican2 service; uplifted and at peace with God and Man.

My prayer book contains a section often used by Jews as a Sabbath devotional. It is a section of the Mishnah3, known in Hebrew as "Avot" and in English as "The Sayings of the Fathers." The section includes a collection of the sayings of some of the earliest Jewish sages, many of whom would have been commonly known at the time of Jesus. A saying of Rabbi Tarfon caught my attention, perhaps because I tend to be easily discouraged. "It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist."4 Furthermore, a Hasidic story tells of a man called Zusya, who said, "It does not disturb me if the Divine Judge will confront me and say, 'Zusya, why weren't you like Moses?' . . What disturbs me is the thought that the Divine Judge may say to me: 'Zusya, why weren't you like Zusya, why didn't you reach the levels that you were capable of reaching?' "5

I also learned that habitual thanksgiving, whatever the situation, is a very Jewish tradition. Rabbi Akiba lived from 60-135 CE and saw both the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem. His favourite saying was, "Whatever God does is for the best." The prayer book commentary continues, "That absolute submission to the will of God, which can perceive in suffering only an expression of God's fatherly love and mercy - that was the ideal of Akiba."6 Similarly, the Talmud7 mentions a rabbi, Na-chum of Gamzo, whose characteristic expression, even in moments of disaster was, "Gam zoh la tovah - This also is for good."8

Another second-hand book,9 this time my bed-time reading on Jewish child rearing, brought the wisdom of the rabbis to bear upon Proverbs 3:12, "For he whom the Lord loves He admonishes, like a father who appeases his son."

Rashi's commentary interprets, "Just like a father whose only wish is to do good to his son and so he soothes and appeases him (ie. speaks words of kindness and affection) after he hits him with the rod."10 This interpretation is supported by another saying, from the Talmud, "Let the left hand repel while the right hand draws near. "11 According to the author, the idea that discipline should always be followed by warmth and love is found throughout Jewish literature.

From the same source I also learned something about respect for human dignity: "Let the honour of your pupil (or child) be as dear to you as your own."12 "He who shames another in public is like one who sheds blood (commits murder)."13 Since regrets often plague me, the following double principle was an apt reminder of God's attitude towards the repentant: One should not remind a repentant person of his former deeds or a convert of his previous situation.14

Last, an object lesson from the Sabbath. I am still a last-minute-rush sort of person. "Late" would be a good last name for me! However, having discovered what diligent, week-long preparation is required, in order to prepare a household to keep the Sabbath, I have a better understanding of Paul's words, "Make every effort to enter your rest."15 The Sabbath is a shadow of heaven. Those who have prepared everything (including themselves and their children), in an atmosphere of love, by the time the Sabbath begins, have worked!

NOTES

1. Rabbi J.H. Hertz (late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Bloch, New York, 1961.

2. Episcopalian.

3. The collection of Oral Torah (instruction) committed to writing around 200 C.E. by Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi.

4. Avot 11:21.

5. Rabbi H. Donin, To Raise a Jewish Child, Basic Books, inc., New York, p.71.

6. Rabbi J.H. Hertz (late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Bloch, New York, 1961, p.658-9.

7. A collection of Jewish instruction comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara. (The Gemara is a commentary on the Mishnah.) There are two Talmuds, the Babylonian and the Palestinian, both of which were written down in the fifth century C.E. The Babylonian Talmud became the authoritative version.

8. Taanit 21a.

9. Rabbi H. Donin, To Raise a Jewish Child, Basic Books, Inc., New York.

10.Ibid. p.67.

11.Sotah 47a.

12.Avot 4:12.

13.Baba Metzia 58b. (See Donin, pp.69, 70.)

14.Rabbi H. Donin, To Raise a Jewish Child, Basic Books, Inc., New York, p.30.

15.Hebrews 4:11.

(Reprinted from Tishrei, Vol 2 No 2, Rabbinic Judaism as a Background to Scripture, Winter 1993/1994)