January 26, 2012
My business these days is questions. Big Questions, to be precise. At Ask Big Questions, we define a Big Question by two criteria: a) Everyone can answer it; b) It matters to everyone. We also say that because of these two criteria, Big Questions usually lead to sharing stories, rather than making statements.
Some folks like to claim that Ask Big Questions is inherently Jewish because “asking questions is Jewish.” And to this I usually respond, yes and no. Yes, Jewish intellectual tradition, and particularly the Talmud, is notorious for asking questions. But also no: after all, Socrates is probably the most famous question-asker in history.
There’s nothing inherently Jewish about asking questions. Human beings ask questions. But Jews have built a religious community out of asking questions. And in Parshat Bo, we find the seeds of perhaps the greatest institution in our religious tradition, the Passover seder.
When you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’” (Ex. 12:25-27)
The Passover seder is built on questions, questions that lead to stories. The mitzvah of the night is sipur yetziat mitzrayim, to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And yet the story is not prescribed. Rather, in the words of Rabban Gamaliel, “in every generation each person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he had personally left Egypt.” The story of Passover is to be told and retold, recreated anew every time by every person. The role of the question in this story-oriented view of the seder is to open up space, to usher the individual into an imaginative world in which their own story meets up with, partakes of, and contributes to the story of the Jewish people. Questioning here leads to identification, identity, continuity.
Yet this is a different understanding of what questions can do than we often think of. In much traditional modern discourse, the power of questions lies not in their potential for continuity, but in the fact that they cause discontinuity. In this line of thinking, to question is to not accept things as they are. It is the beginning of doubt. This is the kind of questioning we associate with the phrase, “Question authority.”
Interestingly, both of these forms of questioning are associated with the idea of freedom. In the latter, questioning leads to freedom from, or negative liberty. In the former, questioning leads to freedom for, or positive liberty. Not all questions are equal, just as not all types of freedom are the same. The power of question to unite or divide depends on its content and context.
The midrash Mechilta reads the verse we quoted above as follows: “At that moment, bad news was brought to the Israelites: that the Torah would be forgotten. Some say that good news was brought to them: that they would have children and children’s children!” (Mechilta Bo 12) As Avivah Zornberg writes on this passage, “The bittersweet nature of questions has to do with forgetting and the desire to know. Without forgetting, there would be no questions. Is this – the inevitability of forgetting – bad news? Or is it good news, implying the constant rebirth of narratives, responses to the questions of those in whom distance and forgetting create desire? The issue is not decided, as so many true questions are not decided” (The Particulars of Rapture, 181).
What does it mean to be free? Is it freedom to control our own destiny? Is it freedom to be able to wholly commit ourselves to something larger? How do we answer these questions for ourselves, and how do we answer them for our children while also allowing them to find their own answers? These are the Big Questions of education, of the seder, and of life.
January 20, 2012
Parshat Vaera opens with a stirring speech from God. In response to Moses’s lament at the end of last week’s parasha, “Why have you brought misfortune on this people? Why did you send me?” (Ex. 5:22), God reminds Moses of the covenant with the patriarchs. And God movingly uses the sevenfold language of redemption, constituted by the phrases “I will release you,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you,” “I am the Lord,” “I will bring you,” and “I will give you” (Ex. 6:6-8).
Just before God utters this famous passage, God tells Moses that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and established the covenant with them. This should be reason enough to redeem the people. But then God goes on to say, “And also I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (v. 5). The “also” here is problematic. Rashi reads it as referring not to an additional reason to redeem the people, but as connecting God’s mention of the covenant with the act of redemption: “Just as I have set up and confirmed the covenant so I must fulfill it. Therefore I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel.”
Nechama Leibowitz understands this passage to reflect her view that the covenant is a one-sided affair: an unconditional promise by God to the people. She therefore dismisses the reading of Ibn Ezra, who understands the “also” in this passage more plainly: “My decision to send you was also prompted by the fact that Israel repented and cried to Me.” As Leibowitz puts it, “There is nothing in this passage or in the revelation at the bush to suggest that Israel’s redemption was prompted by their good deeds and repentance.” Rather, the redemption from Egypt was solely an act of Divine grace.
The question of whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional is one that we have discussed before. While I agree with Leibowitz that the Exodus narrative is one-sided, and that Ibn Ezra’s claim of God responding to actual “repentance” by the people is implausible, I also hold the view that the covenant is simultaneously conditional and unconditional. That’s a paradoxical statement, of course. But, as my Rosh Yeshiva Steve Wald once put it, “It’s religion. It’s supposed to be spooky.”
God’s love for Israel is described variously as that of a parent and a spouse. The spousal relationship is ultimately a conditional, contractual one. We strive to make it unconditional, but at the end of the day the possibility always exists of dissolving the union through divorce–an act which itself can be overturned through the process of reconciliation. In some way the spousal relationship is always a back-and-forth of living as though love is unconditional while being aware of the underlying fact that it isn’t.
Parental love is more towards the unconditional side. “Be merciful like a father is merciful to his children,” we say during the High Holidays. The unconditional nature of parental love makes forgiveness and grace endlessly possible. Yet the challenge to parents is to relate to their children both with unconditional love and with expectations and conditions–this is the process of child-rearing, tza’ar gidul banim. Seeing the relationship of God and Israel in this way, God is infinitely merciful and graceful, but God also wants us to grow up.
While the Exodus narrative here emphasizes the patriarchal, fatherly nature of God’s unconditional and unilateral love for Israel, the ambiguity of the phrase “and also,” which leads to Ibn Ezra’s statement about the people’s repentance or turning back to God, is a reminder that a relationship is never completely one-sided. Israel has to be ready to leave. The fact that they groan under their labors is a significant fact–because it means they have recognized they’ve reached rock-bottom. God takes note, and the Exodus begins.
January 12, 2012
The story of Shemot is a story of miracles. There are the miracles of the plagues. There are the miracles that God does for Moses in order to convince him to lead the people out of Egypt. But it many ways, the story of yetziat mitzrayim hinges on two miracles of a more human sort.
The first miracle is that of Bat-Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues baby Moshe from the Nile and raises him as a son. “And she opened the basket and saw the child, and behold the lad was crying. Vatachmol alav, And she had mercy on him, and said, ‘This is a child of the Hebrews’” (Ex. 2:6). This is actually a miraculous moment. Here the daughter of Pharaoh, who has decreed that every male Israelite child is to be thrown into the Nile, violates her father’s decree. Where her father had ordered that the boys be thrown into the Nile, Bat-Paro draws Moses baby out—and this becomes the basis of his name: “ki min hamayim mishitihu, for I drew forth form the water” (2:10).
What is so remarkable about Bat-Paro’s action is that, in spite of her awareness of just who Moses is and what the law requires, her empathy and compassion take precedence. To appreciate the magnitude this act, we need to look at the only other time in the Torah when the word chemla, compassion, is used. In Deuteronomy ch. 13, the Torah commands that “when one of your brothers… or one of your kinsmen who is like family to you comes to you in secret saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you nor your ancestors have known… lo tachmol alav, Show now mercy to him.” Instead, you are to put him to death.
In this case, our compassion is normal. The Torah recognizes that our tendency would be to show mercy on a family member—and therefore the Torah has to tell us specifically that we need to submerge our compassion. In the case of Bat-Paro, it is precisely the inverse: here is a child of the Hebrews, someone she should leave to die in the Nile! Miraculously, when she opens the ark, she senses the presence of the shechina, the divine presence, and her mercy is awakened. Without this moment, Moses never comes to be. It is a critical moment in the narrative, one of the great miracles of the Exodus.
A second “minor” miracle of the Exodus story also involves a moment of recognition: “And Moses was a shepherd… And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire from the bush. And he saw, and behold, the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed? And God saw that he turned aside to look, and called out to him, ‘Moses, Moses,’ and he said, ‘Here I am’” (Ex. 3:1-4).
What is so remarkable? If we read closely, we see that Moses’s turning aside to look is not to be taken for granted. He sees the bush, and then he decides to act: “I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed?” Moses here demonstrates another small but powerful miracle, the miracle of curiosity. He could have kept on walking. He could have come up with some explanation in his mind. But instead he decides to turn and look. And when he does, God calls out to him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like Bat-Paro, Moses here enacts a small but essential miracle of the Exodus story: If he doesn’t turn aside to look, the rest of the story doesn’t happen. No matter how much firepower God will ultimately display in freeing the Israelites, these two small moments are themselves essential miracles in the narrative of liberation from slavery.
For us, these minor miracles of Bat-Paro and Moshe are perhaps the most important. We live in an age when public miracles like those of the Ten Plagues are hidden from view. But all of us have the capacity to show mercy and compassion. All of us have the ability to see the essential humanity of people in pain—whether or not they are our own children, or even those of our people. All of us have the power to turn aside and look, to be curious, to inquire, and to take action. When we do so, we bring the shechina into the world.
The liberation from Egypt is certainly the work of God. But as Bat-Paro and Moshe remind us, seemingly small human actions are no less important in the story. May we learn from their example.
January 6, 2012
The concluding words of Parshat Vayechi give me goosebumps every year: “And they put Joseph in a coffin in Egypt.” The Book of Genesis ends with the birth of the Children of Israel as a nation–first called the Tribes of Israel in Gen. 49:28–but it happens not in the Land of Israel, but in Egypt. This not only produces a dramatic sense of foreboding at what is to come, but a powerful statement about the nature of Jewish identity: exile is part of our DNA.
This is of course woven into the covenant with Abraham itself: “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there” (Gen. 15:13). The exile to Egypt, the formation of the people in a strange land, is not an accident of history. It is part of God’s plan all along.
This is by no means to say that we are meant to stay in exile, as is made clear a few verses later: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (15:16). But it means that the people of Israel are shaped by our experience out of our homeland, and it informs our understanding of what it means to be at home. Home in the exile is always provisional, always tentative, always colored by a yearning to be truly at home–in our own language, our own culture, our own place. But home in the homeland is likewise informed by the experience of exile and Exodus: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt”–left Egypt, that is, to go to Sinai and the land of Canaan. Thus being at home in Israel carries with it a similar sense of fragility, a provisional quality, a sense that this is not necessarily permanent, an awareness that we also come from somewhere else.
I have been spending much of my time in recent months reading for my dissertation. My focus has been on the development of Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s (and specifically the role of the university in that development). And one of the things that strikes me in my reading is that among the things at stake in the disagreements between people like Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and Aharon Lichtenstein, or between Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, is in their understanding of how the wisdom we can learn in exile is to be understood and internalized. While all Modern Orthodox thinkers see some possibility for bringing together Torah and secular learning, it seems to me that the camps in this debate disagree on whether that integration can happen only on the individual level, or on the communal or institutional level as well. The more conservative view in this conversation sees possibilities for individual Jews to bring together yeshiva learning and secular learning; the more ambitious view sees whole institutions–schools, universities, publications, etc.–as potentially embodying the synthesis.
My dissertation will likely pick up on some of these themes. But as I think about the parasha this week, and about the experience of Israel in exile, I have the questions on my mind. No less a figure than Moshe Rabbeinu is reared in the palace of Pharaoh. He carries an Egyptian name all his life. On an individual level, Moses figures out some form of synthesis between Torah and the non-Jewish wisdom around him. But to what extent does the People of Israel carry these influences as well? And at what point do they lose their Egyptianness and become fully integrated into a Torah worldview?
I do not yet have answers to these questions, but as we read Parshat Vayechi, I think it pays to reflect on them.