The crab said to his son while he was resting one day
“My son, beloved of my soul, straighten your walk, it is crooked
Your father is telling you to measure your steps, do not be ridiculed
Walk like me and then they will praise you and extol you”
And so the son bent his steps like his father, his leg went about in a deviant way
He said, “father, I now stretch forth my leg like you and you should be happy”
His father replied, “Even now, your walking is not wonderful”
The son answered, “this is the way you showed me
All I have done is fulfilled your example”
This is a version of an old story first found in Aesop’s Fables. This particular rendition was told by Rabbi Israel Costa in 19th C. Italy. At the end of the story, he offers a quote from the Talmud that he believes summarizes the lesson of this tale. He writes, “direct yourself, then direct others” (Sanhedrin 18a).
The novel understanding of pairing this quote with this particular story is that it reminds us that being a role model is not about being perfect for others to imitate, it’s about getting yourself set in the right direction whereby others can accompany you on the path.
The story also reminds me of distinct memory from grad school, when a student teacher told the professor about a recent incident in which she had not handled a misbehavior issue well. The professor told her that the most instructive thing the teacher could do was apologize. First because it was the right thing to do, but also because it communicates that we are all life long learners together.
In this week’s Torah portion (Miketz), we see a remarkable example of everything we’ve been talking about as the sons of Jacob learn to restore their connection. Judah, who has just been through a humbling experience with the character Tamar, where he realized he was in the wrong, is presented at the end of this week’s reading in a most stunning light. But first a little background. At this point, Joseph, who was sold into servitude by his jealous brothers, has gone from servant, to prisoner, to second in command of Egypt. When his brothers turn up there to procure food during a famine, they don’t recognize him. Wanting to know if they have turned a new leaf, Joseph has the youngest brother Benjamin framed for theft to see how they will respond.
And now Judah takes center stage. As he stands with his brothers in Joseph’s presence (though they still don’t know it’s Joseph) about to plead for Benjamin’s freedom, we might expect that Judah will step forward as one who has learned the lessons he needed to, now ready to arise as the pristine figure head of the family. A picture of perfection, he could inspire Joseph to give Benjamin his freedom. But that is not what happens. Instead, Judah becomes a role model as a life long learner, a figure who stumbles but gets up again, and again and again. Judah approaches Joseph and asks rhetorically, “what can we say? how could we justify ourselves?” In other words, he accepts that to all available evidence, they have done wrong. It is this willingness to accept responsibility (a word that figures prominently throughout this narrative) that signals clearly to Joseph that indeed his brothers have changed. Eventually, Joseph reveals the ruse and himself and the brothers relationship begins to mend.
Besides the story continuing into next week’s portion, Judah’s model continues with us today. His phrase “what can we say? how could we justify ourselves?” has become an opening liturgical line of the High Holiday season, setting the tone for acknowledging our shortcomings and recommitment to our ideals. Judah did not need to be perfect to be a role model, for him to inspire us thousands of years later to pursue our best selves, he only needed to direct himself on the right path, whereby we might join him in the travel.
The crab of Rabbi Costa’s tale erroneously believed in his own perfection, and in perfection’s prerequisite to teach. Rabbi Costa reminds us, in the spirit of Judah, that our best and most enduring teaching doesn’t come from any kind of perfection but of setting ourselves on the path, stumbling and getting back up. It is in knowing how to take responsibility for mistakes, knowing how to say “I’m sorry” and how to work to make things right. It is about heading in the right direction, not having arrived at the destination.