Friday, June 09, 2023

At the Heart of Complicated Legacy


rcsblogarticle27 image

Itzhak Stern (left) had not seen Oskar Schindler for four years when he met him again in Herbert Steinhouse's Paris office. Both men were still trying to get out of Europe, 1949

Oskar Schindler is an inconvenient hero. Without question, what he did during the Holocaust was exceptional; he risked his own life, time and time again, to save over 1,300 Jews. But Schindler was no saint. He spied for Abwehr, the counterintelligence arm of the German military in Czechoslovakia, and played a critical role in helping the Nazis take over that country. He was a hard-drinking man who died of liver disease, a womanizer who neglected his wife, and after the war, he would constantly make financial demands of those he saved. Schindler remains an enigma, an exceptional hero at one period of his life who lived very differently for the rest of it.


Complicated legacies are difficult to disentangle. A figure like Paul Gauguin, who abandoned his family to pursue his artistic aspirations, still challenges those who evaluate his biography: Do his cultural contributions mitigate his moral failures? While art historians and even philosophers might be willing to overlook his flaws, his family would undoubtedly have a very different perspective.


The Talmud grapples with this question when discussing the life of Elisha ben Avuyah, who, embittered by Roman persecution, abandoned Judaism. He is called Acher, the “other one,” because the Rabbis don’t want to pronounce his name; he is seen as a traitor who abandoned the Jews in their time of need. The Talmud declares that Acher can never repent and is banished from the world to come.


Yet Elisha ben Avuyah’s devoted disciple, Rabbi Meir, prays for him to be brought to heaven; Rabbi Meir cannot bear to see a beloved teacher languish in hell. Acher is at once a despised heretic and a beloved teacher, and his legacy remains a matter of controversy.


And this goes to the crux of the matter: how complicated legacies are disentangled depends on who is looking at them. Children have a unique relationship with their parents, and both villains and heroes are seen in a very different light by their own families. (Jay Nordlinger wrote a book about the children of brutal dictators, Children of Monsters, where he explores the very different ways they see their own fathers’ legacies.)


On the other hand, how we see historical figures is in many ways a look in the mirror. Evaluations of them often vary, depending on one’s political viewpoint, and frequently change with the times. There are ample examples of revisionism, where historical assessments are modified to better fit with contemporary attitudes.


The case of the “generation of the desert” offers a lesson on how difficult it is to judge a complicated legacy. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that the Jews “tested” God ten times during the 40 years in the desert; it is a time of complaints, cowardice, and betrayal. They build an idol when Moses is slow to return from Mount Sinai, they rebel against Moses' leadership during the episode of the spies and do so again at the direction of Korach.


Throughout the Book of Numbers, the Jews complain and complain again. Some of the complaints are readily understandable, such as incidents when they don't have water or food, or when they face a large army. Some of the complaints, like one in this week's Torah reading, are unreasonable; instead of being appreciative of their freedom, they begin to hound Moshe for meat.


The Hebrew word used to describe their complaining, “kimitonanim” (Numbers 11:1) elicits multiple negative interpretations among the commentaries. To Ramban, this word reflects bitterness, the broken soul of worried ex-slaves. However, Seforno sees the complainers as insincere. It is “as if” they were complaining, but not out of worry or fear; they just wanted to grumble. Ibn Ezra sees their complaint as reflecting an evil motivation; and Rashi concurs, saying the complainers were looking for a way to distance themselves from God.


In short, their incessant whining is indicative that they are lacking both character and faith. The quick and easy verdict on the generation of the desert is that they were moral failures.


However, it’s not that simple. The full story of the generation of the desert is hidden from the text. The Torah is silent about most of their lives; there are no events recorded for 38 of the 40 years in the desert. This lack of information conspires against the generation of the desert and encourages us to condemn them. We only hear about their failures, not their day-to-day lives. Certainly, they must have done some good during those 38 years. But how good were they?


This issue is debated in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110b). It explains:


“The generation of the desert have no share in the World-to-Come … this is the view of Rabbi Akiva... Rabbi Eliezer says that (they were so pious that) about them the Book of Psalms (50:5) declares: “Gather My pious together to Me, those that have entered into My covenant.”


Rabbi Eliezer offers a revisionist view of the generation of the desert. He puts aside their complaints against Moshe and their lack of faith in God, and instead, focuses on the rest of the years they were in the desert. The Talmud explains Rabbi Eliezer was inspired by the verse in Jeremiah (2:2) which says: “Thus says the Lord: “I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, when you followed Me into the desert, in a land that is barren.” Following God into the barren desert is a profound act of faith.


What about the complaining, the times that they tested God? Clearly, Rabbi Eliezer recognizes the generation of the desert was quite imperfect. But for all their failings, this generation did continue forward; and one must recognize that survival alone is heroic for a group of runaway slaves. One needs to see the positive in a complicated legacy.


Rabbi Eliezer does offer a rather generous reading of this generation’s legacy. It is fascinating that Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist, the one who always sees the best in human nature, takes a hard line on the generation of the desert; as the Talmud puts it “Rabbi Akiva left behind his kindness in this case.”


Why does Rabbi Akiva do this? I would speculate that it had a lot to do with his historical perspective. Rabbi Akiva dreamt of the Jews overtaking the Romans and was the foremost rabbinic supporter of the Bar Kochva rebellion. This would require stoic courage, a willingness to battle and accept losses; survival alone would not suffice.


That is why Rabbi Akiva needed to condemn the generation of the desert. Their spinelessness and dissension are the opposite of what is needed in a rebellion. Rabbi Akiva needed his own generation to despise cowardice.


In this case, current events suggest a particular interpretation of a complicated legacy.


As I mentioned before, family members wrestle with this subject as well. In my role as a Rabbi, I’ve watched families contend with complicated legacies at funerals as they prepare for their eulogies. There are many such scenarios; some include great leaders who were abusive parents, and predatory felons who were loving husbands.


More difficult to unwind are the legacies of people whose relationships change; parents who are estranged from their children, only to reenter their lives years later, or those who go in the opposite direction, and disengage from their children later in life. Such eulogies will often latch on to the few good years at the end. (A similar perspective is offered by Teshuvah, repentance, which sees the person’s character at the end of their life to be determinative.) But not every complicated relationship follows a timeline; some have good and bad interspersed.


Rabbi Eliezer offers a different way to interpret complicated legacies. He is willing to listen to the silences in the record and hear echoes of goodness. He appreciates how difficult the position of the generation in the desert was, and yet even so, they did end up being the parents of a generation of pioneers, whom they carried to the doorstep of the promised land. There is another story hidden between the lines of the text. And in their own struggle with complicated legacies, many family members use Rabbi Eliezer’s approach.


Years ago, I performed a very small unveiling, which was attended by the late woman’s child and another friend. The woman had suffered from serious mental illness all her adult years, and she had pushed her son away from a very young age; he never had an opportunity to form a loving relationship with his mother. I asked him at the unveiling if he had any memories of her that he thought he should share. The son thought for a moment, and said he remembered one time when he was sick, his mother, concerned about his welfare, made him a cup of tea and brought it to his bed. He explained that it was the one moment that he could see through the veil of mental illness and experience his mother’s love.


In his heart, the son could hear a voice of love breaking through all the confusion of a complicated legacy.

No comments: