Friday, April 12, 2013

Let's not teach children to be stupid

Earlier this week, one of the budding young scholars who relies on me for room and board brought home the following homework question:
Why did Yosef cry on Benjamin's neck at their reunion?
"Easy," said I. "Yosef loved his brother and was happy to see him. His crying was an expression of his joy, relief, love. You know, stuff like that."

The kid had been taught differently. "No, no," he said with that look young people get when they think they've outsmarted an adult. "He cried because he was sad about the two Bes Hamikdashs that would be destroyed in Benjamin's territory. That's what my teacher said." And he showed me the worksheet where the teacher had indeed supplied this answer to the question.

My issue? That answer strips the verse of its meaning and totally confuses important issues of pshat, drash, the role of Chazal and and the nature of their interpretations.

Here's the right answer (abridged)

Yosef cried because he was glad to see his brother. That's the plain meaning of the verse.

However, the Sages noticed certain anomalies in the verse and on that basis of those anomalies either (1) read the verse differently than you or I might; or (2) derived certain lessons from it.

If (1) we can assume that the reading represents that particular reader's understanding of what actually happened. But if (2) its can be very hard to know if those lessons are (a) an inherent part of the original message that Chazal, with the passage of time, discovered; (b) an inherent part of the original message that Chazal received from their teachers, in a train dating to Sinai; or (c) something that Chazal attached to the text via their own cleverness and ingenuity and for any number of different possible reasons.

In this particular case, a particular Sage (R. Eleazar on BT Megilla 16B) is responding to two things. First he's noticed that our verse can be read as if Yosef cried on two necks (the Hebrew צוארי can, depending on its vocalization, be plural) This suggests something else is intended. Second, he's remembering that in Rabbinic interpretation the neck which links the brain and the body is often used as an allegory for the Temple which linked heaven and earth.

As a result, R. Eleazer's straight reading of the verse is as follows:

Hebrew: וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוְּארֵי בִנְיָמִן אָחִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִן בָּכָה עַל צַוָּארָיו:

KJV: And he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck.

R. Eleazer: And he fell (or perhaps "he was overcome?" See 2 Chronicles 14:13) on account of Benjamin's necks, by which we mean the two Temples, and Benjamin cried on account of his (brother's) neck, by which we mean the tabernacle in Shiloh.

To me it seems as if R'  Eleazer is providing a straight reading and thus believed that Yosef's was actually crying about the Temples. However, its possible that he would acknowledge Yosef was crying from joy and love, too, or perhaps he was reading in some kind of lesson (though I don't see any evidence of this)

Now... is all of this hard to explain to a child? Of course. But a clever educator should be able to find a way.

And at the very least the interpretation should be taught in a manner that does not close a child's mind to receiving the truth later on. A kid who has been taught that "Yosef cried about the Temple" will have to unlearn this before he can begin to understand anything about how Chazal interpreted verses. (which is why most Orthodox Jews don't understand anything about how Chazal interpreted verses.)

When this issue comes up, I tell my own children this: "A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning but sometimes what you and I take to be the plain meaning was not what the sages took to be the plain meaning. Also, the Sages were sometimes more concerned with lessons then they were with the plain meaning."

This answers has the merit of being true, without prejudicing the child against receiving more of the truth later when he's old enough to understand it.

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