The Most Precious Blessing
One of the great social inventions of the past few centuries has been the public library. Although conventional wisdom assigns this innovation to the creative genius of Benjamin Franklin, the idea undoubtedly has much earlier antecedents. There were great research libraries functioning in the ancient world in Alexandria as well as in Greece and in Rome. From the Talmud it seems apparent that there were libraries of manuscripts – megillot starim – “hidden or secret manuscripts” that served as the research materials of the great men of the Mishna. Individuals also had their own private libraries and collections of manuscripts and books.
The Talmud in Baba Metzia discusses the liability potential for one who borrows books and returns them in a worse condition than when they were originally borrowed. Even though the Oral Law was not written down in book form until the time of the Mishna of Rabi Yehuda HaNassi, there were many previous notebooks and copied lectures on all of the halachic topics covered in the Mishna that were used by Rabi Yehuda in compiling the final edition of the Mishna.
From all indications in the Talmud and in Geonic literature, borrowing books for studious use was very commonplace in Jewish life. In fact, the rabbis spoke out against those who refused to lend their books to others, seeing in this protectiveness of ownership a hindrance to the spread of the study and knowledge of Torah. Rabbinic responsa is replete with issues and liabilities regarding borrowing books and the respective problems that surely emanate from such a policy of liberal lending of books to others.
Who has not felt the pang of disappointment when a book that was borrowed in all good conscience somehow never makes its way back to its original place on one’s bookshelf? These are the inherent casualties of a liberal book lending policy.
The greatest book borrowers from the Jewish people have been the two other major monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam. Christianity borrowed the so-called “Old Testament” whole cloth from the Jews. It is ironic in the extreme that the gratitude shown by the borrower to the lender of this basis of monotheistic belief and worldview has been expressed in unending centuries of enmity, discrimination and persecution. While Islam never borrowed our book totally it certainly borrowed its contents.
The Koran and Moslem beliefs generally – as distinct from its practices and rituals – are based almost entirely on the values and ideas of the Torah. It has also, over the centuries, shown a great reluctance to acknowledge that a large part of its library consists of borrowed books. In fact, this is true about a great many of the principles of Western Civilization. There is nothing wrong in borrowing books, ideas, culture and knowledge. The wrong comes when the borrowing is not acknowledged, recognized and/or appreciated. It is reminiscent of the Jewish anecdote about a man who owned a large number of books in his library. A friend of his asked to borrow one of the volumes and was rebuffed by the owner of the library. The amazed friend asked him why he refused to lend out his books. The cynical answer was: “How do you think I was able to acquire this library?” Apparently borrowers of books are loath to easily reciprocate the goodness that was once extended to them.
There are magnificent libraries and collections of books relating to Judaica and Hebraica in today’s Jewish and non-Jewish world. With the technological advances of digitalization, DVD’s and the Internet, most of the great libraries and their massive collections are available to almost everyone today. These technological advances have made current book borrowing simple, efficient and secure. But I don’t feel that anything can really replace having the hard copy of the bound book in one’s hands.
Perhaps a later generation exposed almost exclusively to its technologically wondrous toys will feel differently about the old- fashioned printed-on-paper-hard-copy-bound book. But I, who still remember the thrill I experienced when my parents took me to the library every week to borrow books to take home and read them, am convinced that the printed word will never suffer demise especially in the Jewish world and in Torah scholarship. The Jewish idiom – otyiot machkimot – seeing the actual letters and words on the printed page help make us wiser, continues to influence us in our relationship with books. Books are not guests in a Jewish home. They are part of the family structure. The Most Precious Blessing
The Chumash Bereshith began with blessings – God’s blessings to His creatures to inhabit and exploit His wondrous world – and it ends with blessings – Yaakov’s blessings to his sons, the tribes of Israel. The blessings are, so to speak, the bookends of this awe inspiring story of the human race in general and the Jewish people in particular. Jewish tradition always treasures things that begin with blessings and end with blessings.
Between the beginning of the Chumash Bereshith and its conclusion in this week’s, parsha there are many occurrences – not all of them blessed and pleasant. There are wars and violence, famines and tyrants, tragedies and rebellious and disappointing children. There are stories of great sacrifice and noble endeavor, of soaring morality and the loneliness of being right in a world that is very wrong. The book of Bereshith is truly the book of humankind, of every person.
We all enter into the world with blessings and smiles, being held and cuddled. And we leave this world also with blessings but this time with tears, alone but hopefully not forgotten. The blessings that mark our lives are never the same to every person, neither at our beginning nor at our end. We see this clearly from the special blessings granted to our patriarchs and matriarchs by the God of Israel and by the individually special blessings granted by Yaakov to his sons. Every person is entitled to blessing in this world. But every person is entitled to his or her own particular blessing. In Judaism, there are no one-size-fits-all blessings.
The Torah emphasizes that Yaakov saw his children as individuals and not as a conformist mass of people. Even the three sons – Reuven, Shimon, and Levi – who, at first understanding of the parsha, one could say were not blessed by Yaakov, nevertheless also were blessed. Not only were they blessed and included in the general blessing that Yaakov gave to his sons, as Rashi points out, but they were also blessed individually through the very criticism of their faults that were pointed out by Yaakov.
Sometimes in life, the greatest gift and blessing that a parent can give to a child is the criticism of that child’s traits and weaknesses so that these faults may yet be corrected and improved upon. Yaakov sees his children not as only being the next generation of his family but rather as being the future and eternity of the Jewish people. As such, faults neglected and not corrected remain eternal faults eventually impacting on the lives of millions of people. As a child, it is painful to receive an injection of immunization from diseases. At the moment, the child certainly does not appreciate the prick of the needle. But no one can argue the fact that the parent arranging for such an immunization is giving the child a most valuable blessing. Yaakov’s words to these three sons should be viewed in that perspective as well. An immunization against bad traits and counterproductive behavior is a most precious blessing.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com