Tell me the story about Mama," pleaded Yehoshua as he climbed onto his grandmother's knees. "Tell about when I was a baby in her belly."
The old woman laughed and threw up her arms in mock despair. "I must have told you that story a hundred times!"
Yehoshua stuck his thumb in his mouth and burrowed deeper into her lap. "Just one more time, Grandma."
"Well, it all started the winter before you were born. It was the coldest weather in years. Snow in Jerusalem! And it didn't melt right away as it usually does. No, this year the snow stood in huge drifts in the roads.
"People stayed indoors as much as they could. Only when it was time to pray would they venture out, each one heading for the nearest synagogue and then hurrying back home.
"But not your mother! Early every morning she would pull her coat around her pregnant belly and set out on her rounds. I would follow her to the door and beg her to stay home. 'How can you go out in such weather?' I would scold her. And in your condition? The streets are slippery! What if you fall on the ice? If you won't think of yourself, at least think of the baby!'
"'Mother,' she would say, I am thinking of the baby.' Then she would pull an extra scarf around her head and hurry out of the house. I always knew I wouldn't see her for hours."
"Tell where she would go," urged the young boy.
"Your mother would go to every synagogue in the city, starting with the sunrise services and ending with the late risers. Arriving toward the end of the morning prayers, she would stand outside in the cold, waiting for the rabbis to come out."
"And tell me what she would ask the rabbis, Grandma."
"Oh, yes," the old woman smiled. "Your mama would stop the rabbis and say, 'Please pray for mercy for the child I carry. Pray that he be granted wisdom!'"
"And about my cradle..."
His grandmother shifted him to her other knee. "You don't let me forget a word, do you?" she marveled. "When you were born, we thought your mama would finally get some rest. But after a few weeks, she resumed her rounds, this time with you bundled up as well. 'Where are you heading now?' we all asked her. To the study hall,' she said. 'What for?' I demanded. 'And why drag the baby' But she just looked into your cradle and said, 'It is for him that I'm going.'
"And so she would go to the study hall and set up your cradle near where the scholars were learning. And all day long, holy words of Torah would fill your ears."
"And tell why Mama did it," pressed Yehoshua.
"Your mama did it so that you would grow up with a love of Torah and become a great scholar," smiled his grandmother. "May it be God's will..."
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah shaded his eyes from the midday glare as he watched Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma heading down the road. He had hoped they would come. What better way to enjoy the holiday than by learning Torah with his sharpest students?
"So teach me something new," Rabbi Yehoshua said eagerly while serving them fruit and cake.
"But we are your students," protested Rabbi Yochanan. "We drink of your waters like streams fed by a mighty river. What could we possibly teach you?"
Rabbi Yehoshua impatiently waved away this praise. "In the course of learning Torah, one cannot help but uncover new ideas. Who lectured this Sabbath in the academy?"
"Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah," answered Rabbi Yochanan.
"And what topic did he speak about?" Rabbi Yehoshua probed.
Rabbi Yochanan was not sure how to speak before his teacher. Would he properly convey the words of one great sage to another?
Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma came to his assistance. "He spoke about Hakhel, the commandment to assemble all the people to listen to the king read from the Torah," he began. "Rabbi Elazar observed, 'It is clear why the men and women should come to hear. They can listen and learn. But why must the children come?' And then he answered his own question: 'In order to grant reward to those who bring them.'"
"To grant reward to those who bring them?" asked Rabbi Yehoshua. "Isn't that a strange answer! If the children cannot grasp what is being taught, what is the benefit of them being there? And why should those who bring them be rewarded?"
Rabbi Yochanan cleared his throat and volunteered hesitantly, "Perhaps that is exactly the point. Parents are rewarded for bringing their children because it is beneficial for them to hear Torah. Even though they have no understanding, the holy words leave an impression in their hearts. They carve out grooves for themselves, like the outline of a puzzle piece. Later, when these children are old enough to study, the wisdom of the Torah is absorbed much more easily into their hearts."
"Ahh..." sighed Rabbi Yehoshua. "Such a precious jewel in your hand! And you wished to deprive me of it?"
His disciples looked at him in surprise.
"You see," explained Rabbi Yehoshua softly, "no one ever understood my mother. They shook their heads when they saw her going from one synagogue to another, from one study hall to the next. 'Why go to so much trouble?' they asked her. 'What effect can it have on the baby in your womb or the child in your arms?' And all these years I wondered if they were right. Did the words of Torah I absorbed in the cradle really make an impression on me?
"But now I understand her great wisdom. My mother knew that her efforts would not be in vain. She knew that the holy words would be engraved upon my heart, and that my first impressions would last forever."
(Sources: Talmud - Chagigah 3a with Rashi, Ben Yehoyada and Chiddushei Geonim; Jerusalem Talmud - Yevamot 9; Talmud - Avot 2:8 with Rashi; Avot DeRabbi Natan 14 with Binyan Yehoshua; Rabbi Simchah Zissel Ziv - Or Rashaz)
Reprinted with permission from
"NO GREATER TREASURE"
stories of extraordinary women from the Talmud and Midrash