Parables of the Rabbis

Like most of us in the course of Bible exploration, I have become fascinated by parables. They are not quite like allegory, full of symbolic figures in need of special interpretation, but are generally down-to-earth, giving us glimpses of real life in the communities which saw their birth. They usually contain one main point, and may be so obvious in their message as to appear as a piece of ‘absurd good news’, or they may possess a more complicated structure with other levels of meaning, and the hearer must work harder to unwrap them.

In the main, however, a parable makes truth concrete. Very few of us can readily grasp new, abstract ideas. We are more at home with pictures. For example, ‘Goodness’ is difficult to define, but we can all recognise a good person or a good action. Every great idea must take on form and every great word become flesh. Further, if someone wishes to teach us about things we do not understand, he must begin from things we do understand, using material lying readily to hand. Walter Pater wrote that, ‘you cannot tell a man the truth; you can only put him into a position in which he can discover it for himself.’

The oft-repeated definition of a parable is that it is ‘an earthly story with a heavenly meaning’ opening eyes to hidden aspects of reality. It also conceals truth from those who are too lazy to think or too blinded by prejudice to see. It is also, probably, best spoken aloud.

William Tyndale had quite a lot to say about parables, chiefly in the later section, The Antichrist, in his 1528 thesis The Obedience of a Christian Man:

Thou shalt understand that the scripture hath but one sense and that is the literal sense: And that literal sense is the root and ground of all... the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way.... Neverlater, the scripture useth proverbs, similitudes, riddles or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, allegory, riddle or similitude signifieth is ever the literal sense which thou must seek out diligently.

He goes on at some length, listing examples of the ‘borrowing of words for other meanings’, and concludes: ‘Thus borrow we and feign new speech in every tongue’, and, ‘As Christ saith, Luke IV, ‘‘Physician heal thyself’’ whose interpretation is; ‘‘Do that at home which thou dost in strange places’’. So when I say, ‘‘Christ is a lamb’’, I mean not a lamb that beareth wool, but a meek and patient lamb which is beaten for other men’s faults. The similitudes of the gospel are allegories borrowed of worldly matters to express spiritural things; for a similitude or an ensample doth print a thing much deeper in the wits of a man than doth a plain speaking, and leaveth behind him as it were a sting to prick him forward and to wake him withal.’

Jesus was not the first and certainly not the last of the Rabbis to employ parables. He brought such pointed stories to the whole world from the Judaic tradition, and together with the highly compact gnomic sayings like those we find in the Sermon on the Mount, parables complete the other part of his preaching method.

In the scrolls of the Mishnah, the Hebrew commentaries on Torah, are to be found small gems of storytelling; later parables radiating gleams of truth and illustrating grace. I would like here, to retell three of these, more or less in my own words from notes made fifteen years ago. I no longer have the texts before me: They were long ago returned to my Jewish friends. These stories are found in the tractate Pirke Avoth.

The Waggonride
A wealthy Jew was driving along in his wagon when he happened to overtake a young Jew bearing a heavy back-pack. The older man reined in his horses and called out, ‘Am I going your way? Perhaps you would like a ride into town?’

At first the young man hesitated, removed his cap and looked embarassed: ‘Are you going to jump up or not’ said the loftier one. So the poorer mensch climbed into the back of the cart, expressing his gratitude profusely.

After several hundred yards the driver looked back at him from the box and saw that the heavy pack was still firmly strapped to his passenger’s shoulders. ‘Why don't you set down your load in the cart, my friend?’ he said. ‘Oh no!’, replied the other, ‘It is very good and generous of your honour to give me a lift, but I wouldn’t dream of asking you to carry my luggage too!’

The Bagels
It is the custom in Jewish society for some girls to become affianced to young men, yeshiva students, who have vowed to spend their lives in the close study of Torah, the Hebraic Law. These men may become scribes or rabbis or may remain lifelong students. When a girl’s more fortunate sisters have married richer men and wear silk shawls, satin slippers and have real silver candlesticks on their shabbat tables, the humbler one worries as to how she will set a good meal on her family table. This story concerns such a young wife with a yeshiva student as her man.

One morning she ran excitedly to the chamber where he was bent over a Mishnah [commentary] portion, mumbling and chanting softly. ‘Quick!’ she cried, ‘The soldiers are in town, and I have just baked a fresh batch of bagels ... Leave your books and carry this tray try to sell to all those hungry men and we can earn some honest shekels.’ After much grumbling, the student did as he was asked, tied on the tray straps and set off with a little change in his pockets. However, when he got to the main streeet of town, the soldiers spotted him, jeered and elbowed him into the gutter, upset his tray, stole the bagels and marched off laughing.

Crestfallen, the young man made his way home and ruefully recounted the tragedy to his wife. She said nothing, but carried the empty tray back to the kitchen while he sat down again with his scroll. After an hour or two, he got up and went to the kitchen: ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘can you give me something? I feel a little hungry.’

At this, his wife, flew into a great rage, using words which would turn all the faces of the prophets blue. During a pause he finally managed to say, ‘But my love, why are you so angry? You said nothing about the outrage when I came home.’

‘You great ninny!’ screamed the young woman again, ‘When the soldiers upset your tray, why didn't you dive into the road with them to save some bagels for yourself?! You have got only yourself to thank I have done all the baking I can do today and you must pay by going hungry!’

The Shepherd’s Prayer
From the Hiasidic heritage there is a folktale, that on on Yom Kippur Eve, (The Day of Atonement), the night when the penitential prayer, Kol Nidre was said, a young shepherd came into the synagogue of Rabbi Israel Salanter, (1810-83), the noted Lithuanian sage.

There, as you might expect, he found the whole congregation immersed in fervent prayer. The young man looked around him feeling forlorn and shame-faced, for he knew nothing of Hebrew prayer and ritual. Yet he felt a profound impulse to worship. So he whispered, ‘Adonai (Dear Lord), all I know is the Hebrew Alephbet, nothing more. I will recite it many times and you will please take the letters and make words out of them for me.’ And he began very earnestly to recite: aleph, beth, gimmel, daleth and so on.

Some of the people noticed this and began to smirk in ridicule. Soon the matter came to the attention of the rebbe. In his displeasure he replied, ‘Would that every prayer were accepted before the Almighty like the utterance of this shepherd ... This is all he knows and he says it with his whole heart and soul; The Holy One, blessed be He, knows the heart of every human being and He will surely find it acceptable.’

David Green

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