Parashat Balak 5778
Last Shabbat we celebrated our oldest grandson becoming a Bar Mitzvah. In preparation I studied his parashah with him over FaceTime and we worked together to prepare a devar Torah. It was an experience that recalled the saying of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the Gemara Bavli Kiddushin:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף ל עמוד א
אמר ריב”ל: כל המלמד את בן בנו תורה, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קבלה מהר סיני, שנאמר: והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך, וסמיך ליה: יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says “whoever teaches his grandson Torah, Scripture accounts it to him as if he received it from Mount Sinai, as it says “and you shall make them known to your children and your children’s children,” and next it says “the day that you stood before HaShem your God at Horev.”
Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz in his Sefer HaMakneh explains that, even though the primary mitzvah to teach Torah is between father and son, when a child learns with his grandparent he is learning with someone closer in time to the original revelation at Sinai, so the transmission of Torah is just a bit more authentic.
But we can focus in on the precise language of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. He says “whoever teaches his grandson…” and concludes it is “as if he received it from Mount Sinai.” As if who is receiving from Sinai – the child or the grandparent? The answer might seem obvious, but this question prompts us to dig deeper, and turn from this citation in the Babylonian Talmud to the original source in the Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat, in which the context of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement is made more explicit. It comes in the course of a discussion of lengthy processes, such as full bathing or hair-cutting, you should not get involved in close to the latest time for the afternoon prayer during the week or close to sundown on Erev Shabbat, lest you lose track of the time. But the halakhah allows that if you already started the process significantly, you can finish. The Talmud then brings a story that shows there are priorities which transcend this halakhah:
תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת שבת פרק א
רבי יהושע בן לוי הוה יליף שמע פרשתא מן בר בריה בכל ערובת שובא. חד זמן אינשי ועאל מיסחי בההן דימוסין דטובריא. והוה מסתמיך על כתפתי’ דרבי חייא בר בא אינהר דלא שמע פרשתיה מן בר בריה וחזר ונפק ליה. מה הוה ר’ דרוסי אמר כך הוה. ר’ לעזר בי רבי יוסי אומר שליח מנוי הוה. א”ל ר’ חייה בר אבא ולא כן אלפן רבי אם התחילו אין מפסיקין. א”ל חייא בני קלה היא בעיניך שכל השומע פרשה מן בן בנו כאלו הוא שומעה מהר סיני. ומה טעמא. [דברים ד ט י] והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך. יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ אלהיך בחורב.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had a regular practice to hear the weekly parashah recited by his grandson every Erev Shabbat. One time he forgot and went to bathe in the baths of Tiberias. He was leaning on the shoulder of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba when he remembered that he had not heard the parashah from his grandson and turned around and left. What condition was he in at the time? Rabbi Derusi says still dressed. Rabbi Lazar ben Rabbi Yosi says he had already shed his clothes. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said to him “Didn’t you teach us, Rabbi, that if one began one need not stop? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him “Hiyya, my son, is it a light thing in your eyes that whoever hears the parashah from his grandson it is as if he is hearing it from Mount Sinai? What is the reason? “You should make them known to your children and your children’s children – the day you stood before HaShem your God at Horev.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was already at the bathhouse Erev Shabbat, and may have already removed his clothes, when he realizes that he forgot his regular weekly session to hear his grandson recite the weekly Torah portion. In these sessions the grandfather is not actively teaching the Torah but hearing his grandson recite it. The moment he remembers he stops and gets dressed to leave. Rabbi Hiyya his student challenges him, asking didn’t you teach us that if you have already begun the process Erev Shabbat, like removing your clothes for bathing, you don’t have to stop but can finish the process? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi explains that this is different. It’s not a question of finishing a process before sundown. Hearing the Torah portion read by a grandchild is the most precious experience in the world, like hearing the Torah at Mount Sinai – and this supersedes everything!
In this original source it’s clear that the comparison to the revelation at Sinai is not about the grandfather as transmitter of Torah, two generations closer to Sinai and therefore more authentic. The grandfather is hearing the Torah read by his grandson. The commentary Penei Moshe explains that this experience itself of grandfather and grandson both engaged in Torah reenacts the revelation of Torah at Sinai, which was an intergenerational experience in which everyone together heard the Torah from God.
It’s the version of the Talmud Yerushalmi that I find closer to my experience with my grandson. What was deeply moving was hearing the way he wrestled with the challenges and subtleties of the Torah portion and the way he came to resolve them and understand them – and his enthusiasm for learning Torah creatively. We were both listening for the Torah from Sinai and our shared experience was like the original revelation which was also an intergenerational experience. And it should be. The Torah is Eternal and Infinite, it transcends our minds, so it’s older than old and newer than new. To understand it requires teamwork, seasoned minds with some gathered knowledge and young minds with fresh perspectives working together to reveal its mysteries.
שיר השירים פרק ז פסוק יד
הדודאים נתנו ריח ועל פתחינו כל מגדים חדשים גם ישנים דודי צפנתי לך:
The mandrakes have given forth their fragrance, and on our doorstep are all delicacies, new also old, my beloved, that I have hidden for you.
פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) שיר השירים פרק ז סימן יד
חדשים גם ישנים. מה שקבלו מאבותיהם ומה שחדשו מדעתם לעשות מעשים טובים:
New and old: what they have received from their ancestors and what they have newly discovered from their own minds, to do good deeds.
And this experience is alluded to in this week’s Parashah, in the ultimate blessing that the reluctant Bilaam is forced by God to give to the nation of Israel:
במדבר פרק כד
(ו) כנחלים נטיו כגנת עלי נהר כאהלים נטע יקוק כארזים עלי מים:
Like winding streams, like gardens by the river’s edge, like spices planted by God, like cedars by the waters.
Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel, known as the Malbi”m, interprets the poetic images with reference to the tradition of Torah, compared to water that flows like rivers from teachers to students, generation after generation, from Sinai endlessly onwards. The waters of Torah nourish communities compared to spices, trees and gardens rooted in the Land of Israel and throughout the world, and power the enduring existence and strength of Am Yisrael. It’s an intergenerational process.
And participation in this process is not limited to grandparents, parents and children. Maimonides, in his Laws of Teaching Torah, says:
רמב”ם הלכות תלמוד תורה פרק א הלכה ב
כשם שחייב אדם ללמד את בנו כך הוא חייב ללמד את בן בנו שנאמר והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך, ולא בנו ובן בנו בלבד אלא מצוה על כל חכם וחכם מישראל ללמד את כל התלמידים אע”פ שאינן בניו, שנאמר ושננתם לבניך מפי השמועה למדו בניך אלו תלמידיך שהתלמידים קרויין בנים שנאמר ויצאו בני הנביאים, אם כן למה נצטוה על בנו ועל בן בנו, להקדים בנו לבן בנו ובן בנו לבן חבירו.
Just as a person is obligated to teach his son, so he is obligated to teach his son’s son, as it says “and make them known to your children and your children’s children.” And not just one’s son and son’s son, rather, it is a mitzvah upon each and every sage of Israel to teach all the students even though they are not his children… For students are called children.
Every Jew who learns Torah and shares their learning with others becomes part of this endlessly flowing river, the “living waters” of Torah (Zech. 14:8). And if you don’t have kids or aren’t a teacher — be the child! In sharing Torah we come to realize we are all family together, and we can rejoice in the learning relationship, the most precious experience that continually renews the eternal revelation of Torah.