One of the difficulties of having only a little context– we reach conclusions that might be out of context. The cliche “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is out there for good reason. Although men like Mr. Hitler did their best to destroy the last of a long culture, and almost succeeded in my case, we continue. I come from a very old tradition. Evolving for centuries and followed for many generations, I know very little about the inner world of this tradition. I speak and read a useful bit of Hebrew, (though my reading is fairly primitive), so I have some tools for understanding a little, if not a wealth of context.
Thus, as I stood in front of my grandfather Eliyahu’s grave in Cortlandt, the headstone crammed together with the markers for other paupers’ graves, I read the Hebrew words: Eesh Tam veh Yashar, a simple, straight man. These words stung me, knowing the abbreviated history of this sad man I am named for. Eesh Tam veh Yashar! Here lies a simple, straight man. It struck me as a kind of cruelty.
“It’s an old and nonchalant form of cruelty,” said the skeleton cheerfully. “In the shtetl you were called by your distinguishing trait, there was Chaim the Deaf Boy, Yussel Shlep-foos, you know, he dragged one leg because he’d had polio, Fat D’vorah — because in that little town also lived Skinny D’vorah and Birthmark on her face D’vorah. My father was, no question, a simple and straight man. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Come on.”
It bothered me because I knew the word Tam, simple, from the Passover Haggadah. Tam, the simpleton, is one of four types of people in the world, the sages have said in this venerable old book. Teaching ethics by giving examples of contrasting types is a device the sages were fond of. There are some excellent and useful examples of this scattered through the teachings, the one about four types in relation to Anger and Forgiveness from Pirkey Avot is my favorite (I will post that one later).
In the case of the four Passover types and their capability to understand, and what our duty is to each as far as recounting the story of the exodus from slavery to freedom, it goes like this. There are four types: wise, wicked, simple, and one who does not even know how to ask a question.
What is our duty to the Wise Son, Chah-Cham? To the Wise Son you must take pains to tell everything, down to the smallest detail.
The Wicked Son, Rah-shah, who scoffs at everything, what is our duty to him? You shall answer him caustically.
This teaching, of course, always bothers me, because it essentially means you dismiss the nonbeliever as wicked since he does not obediently follow God’s laws. You do not take pains to show him the wisdom and love that is lavished upon the Wise Son whose wisdom is reflected in his eager obedience to God’s will. You answer the Rah-shah angrily. In the original Hebrew the way to deal with the Wicked Son is to metaphorically “blunt his teeth.”
“Well, admittedly, there is a fine line, sometimes, between the Chah-cham and the Rah-shah. One man’s Rah-shah is another man’s Chah-cham; it’s in the degree of respect and knowledge in the challenge the person presents. There are those who strive to understand, and question to gain insight and wisdom, and others whose only delight is mocking and feeling superior. That’s probably what they were driving at, don’t you think?” said the skeleton.
That’s a charitable and reasonable view. I can go with that. Then we come to Tam, the Simple Son. This child gets essentially the same answer as the Rah-shah, but without the bite to it. You tell him, since he’s simple, that you are following this traditional ritual of the storytelling meal because of what the Lord did for me when He brought me out of Egypt.
Which is very much like what you are instructed to tell Rah-shah, that God did this for ME, except in the case of the Rah-shah, you make a point of letting him know that had he been a slave in Egypt God would not have seen fit to release him from bondage because he’s the kind of despicable, unredeemable jerk who deserves the lifelong punishment of slavery.
“Well, you paraphrase, of course,” said the skeleton.
That’s what I almost always do, yeah. Anyway, the only category below Tam is the child who does not even know how to form a question. This represents the person who goes along with everything without having any intellectual tools to try to understand the world around them. The child who does not even know how to ask is portrayed as a very young child, a baby who hasn’t learned to speak yet.
“Well, Ben could have had them carve ‘sheh aino yodayah leeshole’ on my father’s grave, if he’d really wanted to be a prick. Tam is an upgrade over ‘too stupid to even form a question’, no?” said the skeleton.
Much better, sure. But here’s the surprising point of this story. I was at a memorial service yesterday for a friend’s mother who died a few days ago at almost 98. There was a selection of old black and white photos in a tall frame that we began looking at after the service. One photo was of a large, impressive gravestone inscribed almost entirely in Hebrew. We puzzled over it for a moment. I puzzled more than Sekhnet, since I didn’t have my glasses with me.
She turned to me, raised her eyebrows and said “eesh tam veh yashar,” pointing to the words inscribed in the large, dark stone.
I’ll be damned, I thought. Here’s what google translate teaches us about the phrase: א’ש תמ וישר “An upright man” “perfect and upright” “upright and just”.
I’ll be damned.