On the shoulders of giants

On the shoulders of giants

Va'era | Exodus 6:2-9:35

They don’t make them like they used to.” We have all heard this with reference to all sorts of things, usually tools and utensils. Despite all of today’s technological advances, we are often convinced that certain things were of superior quality in the old days. 

We even extend this belief to human beings: Today’s leaders cannot be compared to those of old, and today’s athletes are cheap imitations of the Babe Ruths and Ty Cobbs of yesteryear.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a concept of “nitkatnu hadorot,” “the generations get progressively smaller”: Talmudic sages are no match for biblical heroes, and great rabbis of recent times cannot compare to rabbinic leaders of centuries ago.

Like any belief, this one requires a healthy dose of skepticism. Surely technological progress has provided us with tools that are superior to those we once used. And there are plenty of people today who can stand up to the best of previous generations in courage, erudition, or piety.

In Va’era, we encounter what might be the first example in history of the comparison of a current personage with previous ones in which the former comes off poorly.

Rashi shares, and ultimately rejects, the Talmud’s version of what the opening verses in our parsha tell us. The Talmud understands these verses in the context of the concluding episodes of last week’s parsha, where Moses challenged the Almighty, asking why He has “mistreated this people,” thereby questioning his very mission. Indeed, in last week’s portion, he asked God, “What will I tell the people if they ask me for Your name?”

With this background, the rabbis understand the opening verses of this week’s portion as follows: God compared Moses to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; from this perspective, the patriarchs demonstrated greater faith and trust in God than Moses. They did not question God in spite of their frustrations; Moses did.

“A pity they are gone and no longer to be found.” This statement, which the rabbis attribute to the Lord, closely resembles “They don’t make them like they used to.”

I appreciate the opinion of other commentators who defend Moses and point out that he challenged God not out of faithlessness, but out of a profound empathy for the suffering of His people. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were heads of families; Moses was a leader of a large nation. In his circumstances, blind faith would have been irresponsible.

When comparing later generations with earlier ones, we must take into account the changed circumstances of those later generations. Yes, there is that theme in our tradition that sees the later generation becoming “smaller” than the previous one, but our tradition also encourages us to realize that later generations have one great advantage over previous ones: We benefit from their precedent.

Moses had this advantage: He could learn from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and model his faith and leadership capacities on theirs. When Moses confronted the Almighty in defense of his people, it was something he learned from Abraham, who similarly confronted God in defense of the people of Sodom.

So we need not stop asking ourselves, as our sages did, “When will my deeds approach the deeds of my fathers?” For we have the deeds of our fathers to learn from as we build our own spiritual lives. We stand on the shoulders of long generations of giants. Perhaps future generations will similarly look up to us. 

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