Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.1
Jacob studied “the Torah of exile” in his younger years, and that helped sustain him during his time with Laban. Joseph, in turn, uses this “Torah of exile” during his decades in Egypt. This idea, based on an odd expression in Gen 37:3, opens up all sorts of possibilities for #ExploringBabylon.
The Family Business
This week’s Torah portion (Vayeishev, Gen 37:1 – 40:23) begins with an odd expression that has engendered a variety of commentary:
— from Gen 37:3
“Ben zakunim” is usually translated as something like “child of his old age.” But this failed to satisfy many readers over the centuries, because Joseph is, after all, not the youngest child. Another reading takes zaken (“old”) as a contraction of “זה שקנה הכמה [one who acquired wisdom]” and so identifies Joseph as wise or as one who learned from wise elders: Jacob taught Joseph what he learned in “the Academy of Shem and Eber” (Rashi quoting Onkelos).
The idea of the Academy of Shem and Eber, sometimes two separate “academies,” appears in a number of midrashim. This student essay explains that the academy is used as an explanation for periods of time when someone seems to disappear from the narrative: When Isaac disappears from the text, following the Akedah, he was learning from these elders (Gen. Rabbah 56:11). Fourteen missing years in Jacob’s chronology are attributed to the academy (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 17a). In addition, when Rebecca went to “inquire of God” about her agitated twins (Gen 25:22), she is said to be visiting the Academy of Shem (Gen. Rabbah 45:10).
These midrashim reflect the Rabbinical propensity to see Torah learning as a useful and desired occupation — the family business, in a way — and even an eternal reward: Shem and Eber join Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Aaron in the Beit Midrash of the world to come (Shir ha-Shirm Rabbah 6:2), open to all who learn Torah in this world. But there’s another thread here in that Shem and Eber have something specific to teach.
Academy for Exiles
Shem lived through the Flood and the conditions that preceded it. Eber had lived among those who built the Tower of Babel. The lessons they learned in these difficult circumstances, the “Academy” reasoning goes, helped Jacob and Joseph survive, and not assimilate, during their periods of exile.
In addition, Klahr notes in “The First Beit Midrash,” lessons from Shem and Eber helped Isaac “derive the inspiration to remain a committed Jew after he was almost killed for the sake of God.”
Centuries of Jews have faced similar challenges, and many individuals in tough circumstances, in which faith seems irrelevant or too hard, have found themselves, with Rebecca, asking: “Why am I thus!?”
The importance of the Yeshivah of Shem and Eber lies not in its historical accuracy, but rather in its representation of a culture in which one can maintain a relationship with God despite its difficulty….God did not simply appear to the Bible’s heroes. They were not born with deep strength and conviction; rather, the forefathers [and mothers] worked hard to develop their faith. They went to seek advice from those who knew more than they. They spent time contemplating God and life’s meaning.
— “The First Beit Midrash”
To take a different sort of example, consider the role of the Highlander Folk School in mid-20th Century U.S. history.
Academy for Today
Many of us were raised with some version of “Rosa was tired” as the narrative behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This makes it sound as though Mrs. Parks was a non-entity, calmly tolerating segregation until one day she just snapped, and that the boycott somehow just materialized after that. The real story, of course, is that the boycott was years in the planning by many people, including Mrs. Parks.
Moreover, before making her stand, so to speak, Mrs. Parks was active with the NAACP and attended the Highlander Folk School, where she made connections and developed resources that helped launch a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement.
For a little background, listen to Studs Terkel talk in 1973 with Rosa Parks and Myles Horton, founder of Highlander, about some of learning and work involved.
(BTW, be sure to check out the existing Studs Terkel Archive, see what’s new for 2018, and learn about WFMT’s call for support.)
Benjamin, the last born, is also a child of Jacob’s “old age” — and so this phrase would not explain why Jacob loved Joseph more than his youngest. Some commentators suggest that perhaps Rachel’s death giving birth to Benjamin made it hard for Jacob to relate to his youngest son. Others say that Jacob was already in “old age” when Joseph was born, and that father and son developed a strong bond before Benjamin was born. But these lines of reasoning did not satisfy many readers over the centuries, so other ways of reading “ben-zakunim were suggested. (Not tracking down the citations, sorry, as this is pretty far off-topic.)
Miriam Pearl Klahr, then a sophomore at Stern College, wrote “The First Beit Midrash: The Yeshiva of Shem and Eber,” for a 2014 edition of Kol Hamevaser, The Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body.
This blog actively avoids choosing non-egalitarian sources for basic Jewish background or for default learning resources. But that practice is not meant to discount learning from any quarter. I found this a powerful and useful essay, and I appreciate the author’s careful attention to citing sources so we can all learn further from them. I definitely recommend checking out the whole article.