On the shoulders of giants

On the shoulders of giants

Va’era — Exodus 6:2-9:35

They don’t make them the way they used to.” We have all heard this comment with reference to all sorts of things. Despite all the technological advances, we often are convinced that certain things were of superior quality in the old days — that the old hammer Grandpa used was stronger, the snow shovel he wielded more effective than the newfangled “junk” they produce nowadays.

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 the great rabbis of recent times cannot compare to the rabbinical leaders of centuries ago.

Like other beliefs, 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 while every generation has its outstanding heroes, not everyone in the past was perfect. Furthermore, there are plenty of people today who can stand up to the best of previous generations in their courage, erudition, or piety.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, we encounter what might be history’s first example of comparing 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 Torah portion, where Moses challenged the Almighty and asked why He has “mistreated this people,” questioning his very mission. Indeed, somewhat earlier in last week’s portion, he asked God, “What will I tell the people if they ask me for your name?”

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 were much more trusting in God and demonstrated greater faith than Moses was. In spite of their frustrations, they did not question God; Moses did.

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

I have come to appreciate the opinion of other commentators who defend Moses and point out that Moses challenged God not out of faithlessness, but out of a profound and powerful empathy for the suffering of his people.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were individuals. At best, they were heads of families; Moses held the role of 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. We must judge them in their own contexts.

In the reading that I do about Holocaust victims and survivors, I often ask myself whether I would have struggled to remain alive in the conditions they experienced. I am certain that had I personally suffered the Holocaust experience, I would not have been able to emerge from it with the faith commitment of so many of the survivors.

It is not that we are innately inferior to them; rather, our circumstances have softened us, whereas theirs strengthened them.

There is indeed a theme in our tradition that sees a generation as “smaller” in comparison with the previous one. But our tradition also encourages us to realize that later generations have one great advantage over previous ones: We stand on their shoulders.

Moses could learn from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and model his faith and leadership capacities upon them.

From this view, Moses’ confronting the Almighty in defense of his people was simply something he learned from Abraham, who similarly confronted God in defense of the people of Sodom.

It might be true that “they don’t make them the way they used to,” but that needn’t stop us from asking ourselves, as our sages did, “When will my deeds approach the deeds of my fathers?”

We stand on the shoulders of long generations of giants. Perhaps future generations will similarly look up to us.

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