Our Masters Taught: Rabbinic Stories and Sayings
By Jakob J. Petuchowski
Publisher: New York: Crossroads Publishing Co, 1982.
This collection of sayings and teaching stories offers a particularly accessible introduction to the wisdom of Judaism’s revered teachers from the first to the sixth century CE, collectively known as the rabbis. The selections are grouped into short chapters by subject, such as “About God and the Gods”, “About Life and Death”, “About Revelation and Torah”, “About the Greatest Commandment”, and “About Prayer”. For the most part, the selections are easily understood without an in-depth background in Judaism.
In the introduction, Petuchowski, the translator and editor, explains that he chose to leave the word “Torah” untranslated – the only one word of Hebrew or Aramaic he didn’t translate – because the word has so many deep meanings. Literally meaning instruction or law, “Torah” can mean the Bible, or more specifically the first five books of the Bible. It can mean the actual revelation Moses experienced, as differentiated from the “written Torah”, the scripture recording the meaning of that revelation. Torah can also mean the whole way the rabbi conducts himself and teaches, and sometimes the rabbi is referred to as the living embodiment of Torah. The rabbis even take Torah to mean the subtle power by which God created the world. As Rabbi Osha’ya explains the verse, “The Lord created me as the beginning of His way” (Proverbs 8:22), the “me” refers to Torah. He says the correct reading of Genesis 1:1 is “With the Beginning, God created heaven and earth,” which he says means “With the Torah, God created heaven and earth.”
Thus, Petuchowski says, “the overtones and the undertones” of the word Torah add a richness and depth of meaning to the texts. For example, once the Roman government forbade Jews to study Torah or to live according to it, but Rabbi Aqiba continued his teaching of Torah. When asked if he wasn’t afraid of the punishment, he gave a parable:
One day a fox was strolling along by the banks of a river. He saw how the fishes were anxiously swimming around from place to place. He asked them: “From what are you trying to escape?” The fishes answered: “From the nets that people have cast for us.” The fox said: “Why do you not come up and find safety on land, so that you and I can live together in peace…?” But the fishes replied: “…If we are already afraid in the element in which we live, how much more would we have to be afraid in the element in which we are certainly going to die!”
In other words, if one gives up living according to one’s spiritual principles to avoid the dangers of this world, he puts himself into a far graver danger.
In his introduction, Petuchowski provides background on the rabbinic way of discussing spiritual matters, explaining that the rabbis did not develop a systematic theology, hammering out the single ‘right’ interpretation of spiritual truth. They believed that divine revelation was absolute truth and applied to all times and all people, but that human perception of that truth was always fragmentary. To illustrate this point, Rabbi Ishmael cited a biblical passage, “Is not my Word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that smites the rock?” He takes this line to mean: “What happens when a hammer smites the rock? Sparks fly. Every single spark is the result of the impact of the hammer upon the rock. But no single spark is the sole result. Thus, too, one single Scripture verse can transmit many different teachings.” Thus, a single verse from scripture could be interpreted in many different, even contradictory, ways, without some interpretations being right and others wrong.
The book is, therefore, full of the debate and discussion of the rabbis. One of the chapters is a collection of sayings in which various rabbis – each in his own way – distilled all of Torah down to one greatest commandment. For example, when challenged to explain Torah in one sentence, Hillel said simply: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.” When Bar Qappara was asked if there was one brief text upon which all the rest of Torah depended, he cited Proverbs 3:6: “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”
The rabbis frequently illustrate points with parables and stories. When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai wanted to impress on his students the need to be ready for death at every moment, he likened death to a banquet:
This can be compared to a king who invited his servants to a banquet without, however, telling them at what time the banquet would be held. The wise servants beautified themselves at once and waited at the gate of the palace. For they thought that the royal palace was lacking in nothing, and that the gate could be opened at any time. But the foolish servants continued with their work. For they thought that a great many preparations would first have to be made for the banquet, and that it would take a while for the gate to be opened. Suddenly the king demanded the presence of his servants. The wise servants entered all beautified, but the foolish servants entered in their dirty clothes. The king … commanded: “Those who have beautified themselves should sit down and eat and drink! But those who have not beautified themselves for the banquet are to stand and merely watch!”
Even simple truths that could be easily understood by anyone are clothed in vivid imagery to make a memorable impact. For example, to convey the idea that we leave the world just as naked and empty-handed as we came, Rabbi Genibha compared our situation to a fox who finds a vineyard full of plump and juicy grapes. The vineyard is surrounded by a fence which has only one very small hole. The fox can’t squeeze through the hole, so he fasts for three days till he is slim enough to get through. Once inside the vineyard, he feasts on the rich abundance there, but now he is too fat to get out through the hole, so he has to fast for three days again.
Once outside, he turned toward the vineyard and lamented: “O vineyard, O vineyard, how good you are and how good are your fruits! All that is within you is beautiful and praiseworthy! But of what use are you? The way one enters is also the way in which one leaves you again.” And so it is with this world!
Many of the selections take the form of a question and answer. For example, someone asked Rabbi Joshua ben Qarehah why God had chosen a thornbush as the place to reveal Himself to Moses, and he said:
If He had chosen a carob tree or a mulberry tree, you would have asked the same question. Yet it is impossible to let you go away empty-handed. That is why I am telling you that God chose the humble thornbush – to teach you that there is no place on earth bereft of the Divine Presence, not even a thornbush.
Several sayings and parables stress that humans have the free will to turn toward God and strive to follow divine guidance. Rabbi Hanina bar Papa explained that at the time of conception an angel asks God whether this will be a healthy or a weak person, an intelligent or a stupid person, and a wealthy or a poor person. “And God decides all that. But one question is not asked by the angel, nor is it decided by God: ‘Will it be a righteous or a wicked person?’” As Rabbi Hanina taught: “Everything is in the hand of God except fear of God.”
Yet the rabbis also taught that God showered his grace freely on whomsoever He wished. They told the story of God taking Moses to heaven and showing him the various treasure chambers where He stores treasures to be given to the righteous. One chamber was for those who help orphans, one for those who lead a righteous life, and so on. Finally they came to a vast treasure chamber, bigger than any of the others. God explained, “If someone has his own merits, I give to him from the particular treasure chamber intended for him. But if someone has no merit of his own, then I give him freely (i.e. graciously) from this treasure chamber.”
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