Facing our frailty

Both the midrash and later commentators such as Rashi have often asked why the Torah does not begin with the commandments rather than with creation and the stories that follow.

Both the midrash and later commentators such as Rashi have often asked why the Torah does not begin with the commandments rather than with creation and the stories that follow. There are many answers for that, but what they usually emphasize is that the stories themselves serve as the basis for our beliefs. Sometimes we are bothered by the fact that the stories concerning our ancestors often contain reports of conduct that is - to put it mildly - questionable. Jacob's actions regarding his brother Esau seem dishonorable. Simeon and Levi display no regard for honorable conduct against enemies in the story of Dinah. Judah's affair with Tamar is hardly edifying. Joseph's brothers are ready to kill him or at least sell him into slavery and cause needless anguish to Jacob. The Israelites in the wilderness are rebellious more than once. Miriam has to be punished for her slanderous talk against Moses, and Moses himself is guilty of not sanctifying God's name. Does any other people have such a history filled with wrongdoing rather than with heroic deeds? What is the point of all these stories? Clearly the Torah is not solely a book of laws and commandments or a series of stories of wonderful deeds by wonderful people. We must recognize that it is a record of history, or at least of history as passed on through the generations. This too is important, for in a very real sense we Jews are a family and as a family, we want to know family history and family traditions. I am certain that any family history contains some stories that are edifying and others that are not. In any family history there is always some shady character lurking, some story about a questionable uncle or aunt, a skeleton in the closet. But truth demands that we know about them as well, and the Torah makes no attempt to hide them. It is important that we be aware that for all the wonderful things in our history, for all the great ideas and all the great people, we Jews are and always have been human beings and human beings are by nature full of faults. When we get to boasting too much, we should look back and admit that we too have struggled with our imperfections as Jacob struggled with the angel. There is something remarkable and praiseworthy about a people that is chosen by God for a sacred task recording its own imperfections for all to see. This is humility serving as an antidote against pride. The willingness to admit imperfections, to face up to wrongdoing and human weakness, to admit that even the greatest of our people were prone to error, is a humbling experience, but also an important one. It teaches us never to exalt any human being as the personification of perfection, never to worship any human being, never to make a god or even a saint of anyone. It should also be noted that the rabbinic tradition, as enshrined in the midrash, although sometimes engaging in apologetics, frequently goes out of its way to admit and even emphasize the faults found in the great ones. It goes so far as to condemn Moses for his quick temper, Aaron for his acquiescence, Jacob for his guile. Of course the Torah itself passes judgment on these actions. Jacob pays for this deception by being deceived by Laban. Judah has to admit that "she is more righteous than I." Moses is denied entry into the land of Canaan. The fact that the place of Moses' grave is deliberately unknown is a way of making certain that Moses would not be worshipped. The line between admiring a leader and making him an object of idolatry can be very thin, and Judaism has been wary of it. Unfortunately, even within Judaism we have sometimes come too close to acting as if certain human beings were above criticism. That has always been one of the fears regarding the hassidic practice of acknowledging a rebbe as an unquestioned leader. It is not only Hassidim, however, who are guilty of this. The pilgrimages made to certain graves of rabbinic leaders, the appointment of some rabbis as the head of organizations with total control, the magical powers assigned to kabbalists, all of this comes perilously close to making them saints - to acting as if they were infallible. Judaism demands that no one, no matter how learned or how pious, be seen as without fault. We should never forget that Moses has been designated "rabbenu" - our teacher - never "adoneinu" - our master. That is reserved for God alone. From the very beginning Judaism, unlike other religions, has made a very clear distinction between human beings and God. Humans are God's creation and cannot themselves become divine, just as God does not become human. Any blurring of that distinction denies Judaism's basic teaching and undermines the foundation of our faith.