About a year ago, my older son Jonah called out to me to come into his room. “I can’t sleep,” he said. “Can you tell me a story?” Now storytelling is one of the lacunae in my repertoire. That is to say, I’m good at telling stories when I have stories to tell; but I don’t have a good repository of stories from which to draw. So, on the spot, I went to my strength: “How about the story of Jacob from the Bible,” I said.
Jonah ate it up. Of course, he was generally familiar with these stories before. But this led to a new bedtime ritual: after Natalie read him his ‘regular’ story, I would come in and read him a story from one of the many children’s Bibles we have at home. We’ll set aside the point that most Bible stories are not really suitable for children, as they’re about violence and betrayal and things like that. As Plato cautioned, children who are not capable of understanding allegory really shouldn’t be exposed to stories that demand allegorical interpretation.
Be that as it may, we continued to read Bible stories nightly, working our way through the Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Esther, Ruth, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. When we had gone through these stories several times, we started reading children’s midrashim–legends that build off of the stories in the Bible. And when we ran out of those, I started using Bialik’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah, or Book of Legends. But that requires a lot of sifting.
So last week I realized we could do something else. “How about the Mishnah?” I asked him. (For an explanation of the Mishnah, click here.) We began with Bava Metziah, a section of the Mishnah that deals with lost objects and movable property in general. Of course, studying Mishnah with a 6-year old requires translating terms into ones they can understand. “If two men find a garment and both lay claim to it” becomes, “If you and your best friend Avi were walking down the street and found a Darth Vader action figure at the same time, and you both grabbed it, how would you decide who it belongs to?”
In general Jonah has really been able to get it. “They’re like math problems,” he says. “Only harder, and the answer isn’t always as clear.” Yes, he gets it.
This morning we were studying a mishnah in the second chapter of Bava Metziah. What happens, asks the Mishnah, when you find a lost animal? You need to announce that you have it, and try to return it to its owner. But in the meantime, it requires feeding, which will cost you money. So can you use the animal productively in order to make money with which to feed it, or not? (Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva disagree on this point.) Related to this, the Mishnah teaches that when you find a book (which were scrolls in those days), you have read from it at least once every thirty days. But you may not intentionally use it for study, and you may not read it with someone else.
I tried to help Jonah understand the subtlety the Mishnah was conveying. “It’s not your object,” I said. “But you have to take care of it as though it were.” There is great philosophical material here, stuff that people like Levinas and my other intellectual fodder write about a lot: What are our obligations to one another, and how are those expressed in the responsibilities outlined in the Mishnah? I couldn’t mention Levinas, but these are also things a 6-year old can grasp if framed correctly.
I wasn’t quite sure he got it, until 10 minutes later, well after we had stopped reading together, when out of nowhere he said, “Abba, it’s kind of like if you find a child, or if someone’s parents died and you took care of them. You’d have to treat him as your own son, right?” Levinas was smiling.