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Legends and Folklore

 I have several calendars in my home. One is naturally a Jewish calendar for the year 5780, which details all the holidays and fast days of the Jewish year. I also have an Israeli calendar, which, in addition to listing all the Jewish holidays, also has Israel Independence Day, Jerusalem Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day, amongst others. But for good old times sake, I also have an American calendar, a piece of Americana that remains with me. I have noticed that for the month of February, that American calendar, aside from containing the holidays that mark the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, also has a special day called Ground Hog day. This is a piece of American folklore, based on a fictional ground animal that hibernates during the winter but emerges somehow at the beginning of February from its hole, looks around to see if it can see its shadow and predicts whether or not there will be six more weeks of severe winter that season.

Now, this naturally is all hokum, but it is part of the folklore of the American scene, and these legends play an important role in how we view ourselves and society. In fact, legends are so important that even though, in the main, they are not true, and we even know them not to be true, they greatly influence our perspective of ourselves and of our nation and society.
Legends abound about great events and great people. We are loathe to accept just the dry facts as they are, and we attempt to embellish them with more romantic and exotic flavors that grant color and emotion to what would otherwise be just a dull historic event or biography. In Jewish life, Midrash provides a source of Jewish legends and explains to us biblical figures and events and characterizes for us the value system and the goals that we should attempt to achieve. Midrash is not to be taken literally, but it does instruct us, and points us in the right direction as how to appreciate the great people of the past, and what traits and characteristics are necessary for our spiritual and moral survival and rectitude.
But the problem with legends is that they take on a real life characteristic, so that oftentimes the legend dominates the facts themselves. In the Hasidic world, for example, there are many legends about the great masters of the Hasidic movement. There are volumes of these legends that have been written and circulated. In addition, there is an oral tradition that is recounted, and in the recounting often embellished from one generation to the next. The great Hasidic Master Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk succinctly put it; "Anyone who believes all of these legends is a fool; but anyone who says that none of them can be true is a nonbeliever." So, there is a fine line that must be drawn and understood when we deal with legends and folklore.
It is important to know legends and to absorb folklore. But it is also very important to place them in proper perspective, and not be carried away by fanciful tales or impossible stories. The drive to create legends is enormous. Legends free us from the boundaries of real life and practicality of the world that surrounds us. We would all like to be in an imaginary world. And legends become the vehicle that transports us to that promised land of our imagination and yearning.
Over the centuries, legends have developed and have been repeated so often, that they have become ironclad facts. It is important that we understand the characteristics and traits that those legends are meant to impart to us. They are illustrations of the value system of Torah, the Jewish people and of Jewish tradition. Without legends, without folklore, then all we are dealing with are rules and events, which by themselves tend to be boring and easily discarded. However, when fleshed out with stories, with real people, with supernatural events, these stories begin to breathe, and the values they represent are easily captured into the hearts and minds of children and adults. We all love a good story, and one that contains an important moral value is of enormous value.
The historians who write only a fact and who debunk legends, do so in the name of perceived historical accuracy. However, in many cases, this is a disservice to their readers, for they have not captured the mood and perspective of the time or person involved in the legend. Without some sort of personal attachment, it truly becomes only a dry fact that hardly interests anyone and is easily forgotten.
When I was only eight or nine years old, I read a book of legends regarding our great teacher Moshe. It was a big book and it had a lot of legends and stories in it. Because of the contents of that book, I fell in love with Moshe. In my childish mind, he was my hero, and someone whom I wanted to know and imitate. Later, as I grew older and more sophisticated, but not necessarily wiser, I never lost that image of Moshe that I had as a child. I remember that when I read the last chapter of the book, which contained legends regarding the passing of Moshe from this world, I wept. I felt that a friend of mine had been lost, and that God himself was unfair in how he was treating Moshe. Well, I have grown up, but Moshe remains to me a living and teaching figure because of that book of legends that I read many, many decades ago.
There is no doubt that this book helped strengthen my faith and gave me a greater appetite to study and know the Torah that Moshe bestowed upon us. So, I am in favor of legends and folklore, even if they are not necessarily 100% historically accurate. They serve to educate and should not be minimized or mocked by the great savants of knowledge that always exist amongst us. And by the way, the ground hog predicted that there would be six more weeks of winter weather. I don't know if that prediction was only for the United States or if it applies here in Israel as well. Let us hope for the best.
Shabbat Shalom
Berel Wein

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