In the literature of all nations and cultures are collections of tales, mostly fictitious, which we refer to as legends or folklore. Some are written to amuse and some are written to herald a great person or event.
American children grew up on countless such stories. When George Washington was a young boy, it is reported that he chopped down a cherry tree on his father’s plantation. When his father questioned him, he is alleged to have replied, “yes, papa, I did it. I cannot tell a lie”. The story is meant to teach children of the virtue of truth.
Another similar tale is told of America’s most beloved president, Abraham Lincoln. Of him it is said that while working as a clerk in a shop, he walked six miles to return three cents to a customer whom he had accidentally overcharged, earning for himself the life-long name of “Honest Abe”.
En route to defeat the British in the American colonies, it is reported that George Washington tossed a silver dollar across the Potomac River, a feat which was and is impossible to do.
In pre-Hebrew literature there is the legend of the building of the Tower of Babel. The work could not be completed because God confused the tongues of the builders. As one asked for wood, he was given straw. The legend offers an explanation of why there are so many different languages spoken.
There is a legend of Noah, whose name means “he came to rest”, who was spared because he was the most righteous man in his generation. But the actual Flood story was recorded in the Sumerian and Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic, written at least three thousand years before biblical man walked the earth.
Jonah was swallowed up by a great fish and from its bowels he pleaded with God to be saved. Cast up onto dry land from the mouth of the fish, he proceeded to save the evil generation of Nineveh.
Abraham was cast into a fiery furnace by Nimrod and emerged unharmed. Daniel was cast into a den of lions and walked out unscathed.
Moses and later Elijah fasted for forty days and forty nights and did not die of thirst or malnutrition.
Falsely accused of adultery, women were forced to drink bitter waters. If they survived they were declared free of guilt. If they took ill, they were condemned to death. The bitter waters judged them.
Legends are told of brave deeds which men were said to have done. Most were exaggerated or were simply untrue. But every nation needs its heroes as examples for generations yet to come.
One of Israel’s greatest generals was a well-known womanizer who betrayed the wife of his youth.
Several others followed his shameful example. “If he can do it and go unpunished and be held up high as a national hero, so can I”. And we have become a nation mired in the dredges of infidelity and immorality.
No nation has ever imprisoned a former president for rape or sexual harassment of young women. Only we in Israel have suffered such a misfortune. Rabbinic leaders were always persons held in highest esteem and regarded as saintly. How sad that so many of our religious leaders have been involved in scandals of bribery, sexual misconduct and the rape and sodomy of young children.
Legends are one aspect of national cultures. Folklore is another. But truth is the most virtuous path for those who lead and for those who follow. No chizbatim, no bobbe-meises. Plain truth whether it pleases or displeases us.
We have lost our path to courtesy. In our Knesset sessions there is shouting, name-calling, and a hatred which is becoming contagious.
We need to create a new national literature based upon truth, upon dignity and upon respect for our colleagues, neighbors, teachers, families and friends.
We are called “am ha sefer”… the people of the Book. We need to re-open the pages of that Book and to learn and to teach the morality which has always been our birthright.