From Past to Future
[/caption]In 1509, Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Dominican monk who was also a converted rabbi, published Mirror of the Jews, an anti-Semitic book proposing that all works in Hebrew, including the Talmud, be burned.
Johannes Reuchlin, a Bavarian humanist, dismayed by the possibility of such desecration, formally protested to the emperor. Jewish scholarship should not be suppressed, he argued. Rather, two chairs in Hebrew should be established at every German university. Pfefferkorn, he wrote, was an anti-intellectual “ass.”
Furious, the rabbi who had become a monk struck back with Hand Mirror, accusing Reuchlin of being on the payroll of the Jews.
The controversy raged for six years. Five universities in France and Germany burned Reuchlin’s books, but in the end he was triumphant. Pfefferkorn’s fire was canceled and the teaching of Hebrew spread.
Pfefferkorn was the boogieman of my childhood. He was the ultimate self-hating Jew. It wasn’t enough for him to have converted and become a monk, he wanted to burn every Hebrew book in Europe. He wanted to destroy anyone who would defend Jewish scholarship.
“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and covered their father’s nakedness.” (Genesis 9:22-23)
Ham ridiculed his father; He rejected the place from which he had come. Shem and Japheth honored their past, even when they were fully aware of its failings. They refused to look at their father’s nakedness. Ham felt that the only way to build the future was to reject the past with all its mistakes and failings. His father, Noah, represented the generation before the Deluge. When Ham saw his drunken, naked father, wallowing in his wine, he felt justified in cutting off the past, as the Sages teach, “Ham castrated Noah.” (Sanhedrin 70a)
Ham was the first Pfefferkorn. He was not satisfied in building a future; he wanted to wage war against his roots. He believed that the only way to move ahead was to destroy the past.
Shem and Japheth acknowledged the failings of the previous generations, but they understood that the future could only be built upon the past, even its ruins.
Noah deprived Ham of his future: “Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” (Verse 25)
Shem, the ancestor of Israel, was rewarded with the Mitzvah of Tzitzit. Japheth was rewarded with a promise that his soldiers’ bodies would be honored with burial after Armageddon. Both were rewarded in the future that would be theirs as a reward for the honor they paid to the past.
Tzitzit reflect God’s promise that all we do has the potential of an eternal future. Japheth, who followed Shem but did not act on his own, merited honor for the bodies of his descendants; honor for the lives they lived, honor of their past, but without the promise of an eternal future.
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