“Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”
– Hamilton: An American Musical, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
With precocious children the Shabbat table conversation can be a wide-ranging roller coaster ride. A recent Friday night discussion between us and our 10-year-old twins, Aderet and Tehila, weaved effortlessly from climate change to ancient Japanese Samurai culture to whether the laws of nezirut (asceticism) could be an outlet for those who felt the need to be “more religious than everyone else.” At one point, Tehila raised the story of “Acher,” which her teacher evidently shared in class a few weeks prior. Elisha ben Avuyah is the brilliant, albeit rigid, scholar-turned-heretic that the Talmud refers to as “Acher” (literally “the other”). She proceeded to retell the incident described in Kiddushin 39b where Acher witnessed a father sending his son to perform the commandment of shiluach ha ken (shooing the mother bird away from the nest before taking her eggs or chicks). Despite simultaneously honoring his parent and performing shiluah ha ken, the only two commandments for which the Torah explicitly states the reward of arichut yamim (literally, longevity of days), the son falls off the ladder and dies. Bearing witness to this tragedy, the Talmud concludes, is what ultimately leads Acher to apostasy.
While I secretly wished her teacher had chosen a less treacherous story, I decided to bite the bullet and ask the girls how they would reconcile what Acher saw? Without as much as a minute of contemplation Aderet responded, “well, the son may have died back then, but we are still talking about him years later, so in a way he really has had a long life.”
I have heard the story of Acher countless times over the years. Never once had I considered it as a lesson on legacy. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I pondered the depth of her insight. It was the very fact that his death led Acher to renounce God that bestowed the nameless son with “immortality.” As a result of Acher’s irreverence, generations of men and women have utilized the son’s legacy as a springboard to explore the roles of faith, justice, and destiny in the human experience. Aderet elaborated, Acher could not see beyond the scene playing out in front of him. He could not accept that this tragic event somehow had a purpose along the chain of Jewish destiny. In a beautifully transcendent moment, she validated the truth of her own revelation. She endowed purpose to the death of the son, the death that Acher was unable to reconcile, by incorporating it into her own understanding of the world around her. She saw the entire chain of events, the senseless death, the questioning of faith, and the generations of debate that followed, as lessons for her own religious engagement. We watched in awe as she released this tiny pearl of wisdom, as though it had been waiting patiently for generations for her turn to add a link to the chain of Jewish destiny.
She saw the entire chain of events, the senseless death, the questioning of faith, and the generations of debate that followed, as lessons for her own religious engagement. We watched in awe as she released this tiny pearl of wisdom, as though it had been waiting patiently for generations for her turn to add a link to the chain of Jewish destiny.
Tehila followed with an insightful observation of her own. She pointed out that the two seemingly disparate commandments with rewards of longevity both relate to connections between parents and children. She wondered if “longevity” is not only about years on this earth, but about influence on future generations? Could the relationship between parents and children be the key to “legacy”? Beyond just the parent-child relationship, both these commandments are actions directed from the child (or on behalf of the child) toward the parent. We consider that perhaps legacy is less about our contribution to the future, and more about our connection to the past. Deftly, the conversation turned to whether this idea could be applied to the juxtaposition between the abrupt abrogation of King Saul’s monarchy and the promise of an everlasting dynasty to King David.
We have been talking a lot about dynasties lately. The girls and I have been learning the early books of the Prophets in preparations for their B’not Mitzvah celebration next year. I Samuel, chapter 15 describes Saul’s cardinal sin. He is commanded to eradicate the nation of Amalek as retribution for the injustice they meted against the Jewish people after the exodus from Egypt. Saul disregards the word of God and declines to slay Agag, the Amalekite King. The commentators tell us that Saul saw himself in the mighty king and had pity on him. By doing so, he renounced his responsibilities to his predecessors and detached himself from the continuum of Jewish history. As a result, not only did he lose the throne, he unwittingly set into motion the persecution of the Jews in Persia hundreds of years later at the hands of Haman “The Aggagite.”
She wondered if “longevity” is not only about years on this earth, but about influence on future generations? Could the relationship between parents and children be the key to “legacy”?
David, on the other hand, “cooooonstantly” (tween emphasis intended) peppers his interactions with history reflections and requests for God to approve his decisions. When Nathan the prophet delivers the message to David that he has been chosen to head an everlasting dynasty, David replies with a lengthy prayer.
“And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth, whom God went and redeemed as His people, winning renown for Himself and doing great and marvelous deeds for them [and] for Your land—[driving out] nations and their gods before Your people, whom You redeemed for Yourself from Egypt…And may Your name be glorified forever, in that men will say, ‘The LORD of Hosts is God over Israel’; and may the house of Your servant David be established before You.” (II Samuel 7:23-26)
David clearly grounds his dynastic reign within the historical continuum of the Jewish experience. In contrast to Saul, he understands that his legacy is meaningless without its connection to past. When Samuel reprimands Saul for sparing the life of Agag, he uses the words “netzach yisrael lo yishaker – the eternity of Israel will not lie,” castigating Saul for failing to recognize his place in the everlasting history of the Jewish people and its testament to the validity of God’s word.
The girls and I ultimately conclude that in order to perform the commandments of honoring one’s parents and shiluah ha ken, we must reconcile that no one …exists on his/her own. That present actions are at once colored by those who came before us and influence a future we may never get to see.
The girls and I ultimately conclude that in order to perform the commandments of honoring one’s parents and shiluah ha ken, we must reconcile that no one (be it person or chick) exists on his/her own. That present actions are at once colored by those who came before us and influence a future we may never get to see. As we head into the month of Elul, the month of reflection and resolution, I am struck by the enormity of the parenting task laid before us; to raise children, specifically daughters, who are capable and confident enough to boldly propose insights on age old Talmudic and biblical passages, while also deeply grounded and connected to the wide-lens perspective of Jewish history. We must teach them, like David, to both celebrate their accomplishments and recognize their contributions as new links added to the long chain of Jewish experience. The very same chain that Acher tried desperately to extricate himself from and yet, despite his efforts, centuries later two young girls sit at a Shabbat table integrating his experience as part of their own Jewish legacy.
Aderet Maslow and Tehila Maslow contributed to this piece.
Bat-Sheva L. Maslow, MD is a reproductive endocrinologist and an expert on the intersection of reproductive medicine and Jewish Law. She is the Director of Medical Curriculum for the North American Yoetzet Halacha Fellowship Program and a founding board member of the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association (JOWMA). She practices at Extend Fertility in New York City.
Aderet E. Maslow and Tehila T. Maslow are entering the 6th grade at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. They are avid readers, snowboarders, artists, and budding scholars in their own right.
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