Generation to generation: Remembering is the key to Jews surviving, thriving

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence F. Layfer, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: B’haalot’cha (Numbers 8:1−12:16)

“I have taken the Levites for Myself…to perform the service in the Tabernacle”…Leviticus 8:16-19

The tribe of Levi was set aside by G-d to serve in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem. They did not receive a fixed portion in the land like their brother tribes, but rather were supported through one of the tithes imposed on every Israelite. Amongst their many administrative duties, one may have been to sing in the Temple. Part of their “song book” were fifteen Psalms, numbers 120-134, all of which begin with the opening “Shir Ha-Ma’alot,” or “Songs of Ascent”, perhaps referring to what they would sing as they ascended the fifteen steps to minister at the Temple. These “songs” can be found in most prayer books after the afternoon Sabbath service, usually recited between Sukkot to Passover.

Perhaps the most familiar one of these Psalms is number 126, sung after each Sabbath meal. It speaks of the return from exile seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple: “When the Lord brought us back from captivity, we were like in a dream.”

Of this dream the Talmud tells a story: “Honi the Circle Drawer asked, is there anyone who sleeps and dreams for seventy years? One day he was going along the road, and he saw a man who was planting a carob tree. He said to him: in how many years will this tree bear fruit? He said to Honi: in seventy years. Honi said to him: Is it obvious to you that you will live seventy years? He said to Honi: I found a world with carob trees. Just as my forefathers planted for me, I too plant for my children. Honi sat down and ate bread, slumber overcame him and he fell asleep. A cliff was formed around him, and he was hidden from the eye, and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke, he saw a man who was picking some of the carobs off the tree.

Honi said to him: Are you the one who planted the tree? The man answered: I am his grandson.”

The Talmud is speaking of our obligations to each other across generations. When Honi asks if a dream can last seventy years, he is referring to the conquest of the land by the Babylonians, their destruction of the First Temple, and the subsequent exile. It was the Babylonians intent to assimilate the Israelites into their culture. In order for us to survive as a people, the generation of that exile needed to remember Jerusalem, its meaning and beauty, and be able to pass it on to their children. Their watchword is recorded in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion…if I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill…if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy.” Their fear was that those of the third generation, their grandchildren, who had never seen Israel or the magnificence of Jerusalem and its Temple, would succumb to the temptation of the nightlife of Babylon, the center of urban culture at that time. It is here that Honi asks his question, and it is here that G-d sends the old man and his carob tree to teach Honi a lesson.

One generation can die out and another take up the dream as its own, and even another generation after that. The Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, who offered the third generations exiles an opportunity to return to the land and resettle it.  It is this seventy years, three generations that Honi is referring to, for those of the third generation did return, and built the Second Temple. But Honi already knew this, for he lived 400 years after the return. Why did he ask the same question again? Because Honi lived in the Second Temple period, and as the Kingdom spiraled down towards the destruction of the Second Temple, Honi’s concern was if the dream could survive a second exile.

That second exile was much longer, some 70 generations. It saw terrible attempts to destroy the Jewish people, spiritually and physically. But it was also a time of remarkable commitment and dedication, by each and every generation in between, each facing existential risks. They not only survived such adverse conditions, in many ways they thrived, and produced a rich literature and culture for us to inherit. It was a time of heroes and leaders, of Talmud, of Rashi and Rambam, of Zohar and Chassidut, of scholars and dreamers, and finally, of pioneers. Those generations remembered how to sing Zion’s song. And because of all of them, we live at a time when the words of another of the Songs of Ascent, of Psalm 122, have become again a reality: “I rejoiced when they said to me ‘let us go up to the House of G-d,’ immobile stood our feet within your gates, Jerusalem, built up as a city united together.”   

We recently celebrated Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and of Yom Yerushalayim, the 50th since the re-unification of Jerusalem. What we receive, we commit to passing on. As Theodore Herzl said as if in answer to Honi, “if you will it, it is no dream.”

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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