Thursday, 07 Sep 2017

Written by Daniela Touati

This summer I returned to Haifa in search of my “madeleine de Proust” or rather the “bourekas of Haifa”. The official aim of returning to the place I lived for four years was to study Hebrew and Talmudic texts while there was an unofficial aim: reconnect with my tiny and distant family.

Living together with my father’s cousins, related me intimately with their day to day life. They are both in their early eighties, and are starting to wonder what kind of inheritance and legacy they will be leaving to their two daughters and seven grandchildren. My aunt was keeping a journal of significant moments of her life that no one ever dared ask her about, hoping that at some point it will interest someone in the family… I was the first to listen to her memories, nostalgia infused every moment spent together.

She was especially anxious about her bookshelves, where one could find at least one thousand books in five different languages: Romanian, French, English, German and Hebrew.

It is not easy to let go what one considers as a rich intellectual life. It raised for me the acute issue of being able to transmit to the next generation, while at the same time letting go. This duality, both generations are caught in: the “givers” are worried that what they lived for and learned will neither survive nor be useful for future generations. The “receivers” feel guilty since they feel unable to take care of this legacy. Never mind the fact that most of the bookshelf comprised of novels or political books, might be outdated, while others classics could be stored more easily online.

As far as books are concerned, the young generation might have the strange feeling of trampling on their spiritual legacy. Jews and books are part of a love story. We honour books as we honour our elders. But, two thousand years of tradition has given birth to a tremendous amount of books. The way we act with them is a metaphor of how we behave with our tradition.

Dr Micah Goodman, research fellow at the Hartmann Institute in Jerusalem, recounted in one of his lectures about Zionism the following story[1]. Imagine that you inherit from one of your ancestors a very large bookshelf. You can operate three ways. The first one is to throw everything away. The second one is to keep everything and put it in your living room. The third one is to sort out what to preserve or to hand over to friends or to a local library.

This story is useful to reflect on when one has to deal with the legacy of past generations, be it physical or spiritual. Some of us might feel overburdened by our ancestors, and prefer to get rid of everything, even if it risks losing any knowledge of the past. Others have a remarkable sense of awe and honour for past generations, and they would opt for keeping faithfully all their ancestors’ belongings and teachings, placing them at the centre of the room and life. Therefore, rapidly they would lack space and even air to breathe. The third option, that allows one to select what is worth keeping or giving away seems the most reasonable way of dealing with one’s inheritance.

This week’s parashah gives us some clues about how to deal with one’s inheritance and place oneself in a lineage. “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage and you possess it and settle in it…”(Deut.26:1)

After forty years in the wilderness, when the Israelites are finally dwelling in the land, are they able to benefit from their inheritance? No, God is very demanding towards them and us, since He knows human nature; He asks for a final effort, an effort that may seem superhuman, that of the gift of the first fruits.

Even if most of us live away from the countryside and agricultural constraints, some still have access to a garden and fruit trees. They know the patience and work it takes to see them blossom. The first fruits are a reward after several years of intensive care. However, precisely these very first precious fruits, one has to be able to deprive oneself of and donate to God.

The Torah in its wisdom sees the risk of clinging on to possessions, of human greed. Each year the same ceremony of the first fruits will take place and each year we have to feel repeatedly the sense of wonder of coming into the land and picking – without possessing, its first fruits. There is a symmetry pointed out by Nehama Leibowitz, between the statement one has to make when offering the first fruits: “… that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deut. 26:3) and the one we make around the Seder table, when one sees oneself as if one came out of Egypt oneself. Freeing oneself from slavery is equivalent to freeing oneself of greed.

Following this religious ritual acknowledging God’s intervention in the world, we have to set aside the tithe for the Levites, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. We are commanded to take care of the weakest categories of people that reside among us before enjoying the fruits of our work.  Giving part of our belongings to those who are in need is a new lesson that each generation has to perform and thus learn for itself, in order to renew the covenant. There is no automatic transmission of past generation’s ethical behaviour.

Then, we have to write down these laws in a book, which will be handed down to future generations: “As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the Land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching…” (Deut. 27:2-3)

As part of the Jewish people, we are the heirs of a threefold tradition. A ritualistic-religious one, which demands of us to recognize God’s intervention in the world, an ethical one which demands of us to care for the other and a spiritual one which is transmitted through the teachings of the Book. The teachings of the Book are not crystal-clear, we have to study in order to clarify their meaning. We can rely on past interpretations that make sense to us today while also generating new ones. Thus, we can reclaim our freedom at each generation.

Daniela Touati 4th year Student rabbi

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0_sgs6vHgw&t=3251s