March 2010


Passover is the Jewish people’s most child-centered holiday. From the game of hide-and-seek during the search for hametz on the night before the seder, to the bookend game of finding the afikomen that enables the seder to conclude, children are the focus of much of the attention of the holiday. The Torah itself directs our minds to our children in the verse that forms the basis of the seder itself: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)

The Answers We Give the Child
Of course the centerpiece of the child’s involvement in the seder is in the asking of questions. The universal custom is for the youngest child at the seder to ask the Four Questions—observing “how different is this night from all other nights!” It is not simply that we tell our children the story; the point is to engage them in a dialogue, in a night of questions and answers. Again, this gesture is commanded by the Torah, which instructs, a few verses after the one we just quoted: “”In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” (Exodus 13:14) The child will ask, and the child must be led to ask.

But what answer do we give? The Mishnah tells us to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise.” The sages of the Talmud disagreed on what this meant: “Rav said: In the beginning our ancestors were idol-worshippers. Shumel said: We were slaves.” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 116a) The commentators on the Talmud offer different understandings of what the Talmud means, but the custom has already been well-established for many centuries: We first say “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” (Shmuel’s answer) and, after several interludes, we say “In the beginning, our ancestors were idol-worshippers” (Rav’s answer).

In his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides records the law as follows:

It is a commandment to teach one’s children, even if they did not ask, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child.” The father teaches his son according to his intelligence. How so? If he was a child or a fool, say to him, “My son, we were all slaves–like this maidservant, or this manservant–in Egypt. And on this night, the Holy One Blessed Be He redeemed us and took us out to freedom.” And if the son is grown or wise, teach him what happened to us in Egypt, and the miracles that were done for us by Moses. All is according to the intelligence of the child…

And one must begin in lowliness and conclude in praise. How so? Begin and tell of how originally our ancestors, in the days of Terach and before him, wrongly and falsely followed after vanity and chased after idolatry. And conclude in the true worship, that God brought us near to Him and separated us from the wayward, and drew us to his uniqueness. And likewise begin and make known that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, including all the evil that they did unto us; and conclude with the miracles and wonders that were done for us, and our freedom. And this is where one expounds from “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean” until he finishes the section. And all who elaborate upon the expounding of this section–this is praiseworthy. (Laws of Hametz and Matzah Ch. 7, laws 2 and 4)

In the first law, the Rambam focuses on Shmuel’s answer of “We were slaves,” and makes the educational task very concrete. If one has a slave in one’s house (and this is not the place to take up the question of Jews owning slaves), one uses the slave as a prop in the drama. Interesting the Rambam mentions that we teach our children about the works of Moses, who is of course not mentioned in the Haggadah.

In the second law, the Rambam seems to indicate that we begin with Rav’s answer, focusing on the wayward worship of our ancestors. Once that context has been laid, we can talk about slavery and liberation. But, showing his theological tendencies, the Rambam here emphasizes the overarching goal not only of the seder, but of all commandments: to know and serve the one true God.

Is there an inconsistency here? Is the Rambam contradicting himself? (more…)

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Here’s a recording of a webinar I gave for Hillel professionals a couple of weeks ago on preparing for seder. More material on play, complete with graphical aids. It lasts about 50 minutes. You can skip to the 10 minute mark, which is where I start (the first ten mins are intros).

A short podcast in honor of Pesach.

In the opening verses of the Torah portion of Vayikra, we find this line (verse 3), translated in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition as:

If his offering be a burnt-offering of the herd, he shall offer it a male without blemish; he shall bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.
The JPS here translates the phrase lirtzono, which literally means “according to his will,” to refer to the will of God: In presenting this offering, it is important to follow the instructions so that God will accept it.

This one word, lirtzono, has been the subject of debate among the commentators, and others offer a strikingly different interpretation. Rashi, following the Sifra, tells us that the verse comes to teach as follows:

“He shall bring it” teaches that we force him [to bring an offering]. You might have thought that this means even when it’s against his will. Therefore the Torah states: “Lirtzono,” “According to his will.” How so? We force him until he says, ‘I will it.’
Here the subject of lirtzono is the bringer of the sacrifice, not God. Fair enough. But what Rashi points us to is a more profound issue involved in the act of divine service: If we are to serve God with our own wills, what do we do when our will is not aligned with God’s?

For Rashi, the options–or perhaps the solution–includes forcing ourselves, or others, to want to serve God. This may sound extreme, and no doubt it can be taken in that direction. But it can also be taken in directions that more palatable to our sensibilities, such as in the case of a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get, or religious bill of divorce. According to Jewish law, a get must also be given freely. So Maimonides states that a Jewish court can force a man who refuses to give his wife a get, and he quotes precisely this teaching: “We force him until he says, ‘I will it.'”

How does Maimonides justify this? “We do not say someone’s will is violated unless it is for something which one is not obligated to do by the Torah… But one whose evil inclination has overtaken him so that he has transgressed a commandment, and who is compelled by others to do that the Torah obligates him to do… this is not the violation of his will. Rather, he violated himself with evil thoughts.” (Laws of Divorce 2:20)

In the world and society in which we live, nothing is more sacrosanct than the notion of individual will. That is one of the fundamental contributions of modernity, particularly as it has been elaborated in the American context. The result is what the Jewish scholars Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen described as “the sovereign self,” in their 2000 book The Jew Within. We do what we do because we want to do it, because “it works for us,” in the words of Rabbi Brad Hisrchfield of CLAL. We are the arbiters of our own truths, religious and otherwise.

The problem comes, however, in the fact that we cannot always trust ourselves to know or do what is right–whether the yardstick we use is our own health and satisfaction, or whether it is the service of God. In fact, as Rashi and Maimonides remind us, sometimes we need others–our friends, our community, the law–to force us to do what is right. More frequently, it is not a question of force. It is more subtle, a question of influence and education, both conscious and unconscious. The Torah, as Rashi and Rambam both remind us, is built on a vision of individuals living in community, and living with a greater sense of context, purpose, and service than their own fulfillment. That is the basic idea of korban, sacrifice, that forms the substance of Parshat Vayikra.

Shabbat Shalom.

I attended a panel discussion yesterday here in our building at Hillel, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies, on Religion and Psychology, in particular focusing on relationships: how relationships form and shape the ways we experience ourselves, in both psychological and religious terms. It was part of a larger conference the department is hosting. The panelists included both clinical psychologists and academics, and the audience was made up of faculty and graduate students in Religious Studies, and guests from other universities.

The theme of this panel was the relationships people have with objects: physical objects, imagined objects, people as objects. Physical things are essential elements in orienting our worlds, and the projections and ideas we have about them, the meanings they carry and convey for us, the relationships we have with them, are the stitching in the fabric of our lives. Mundane examples: a souvenir from a trip, a cherished photograph, a child’s art project. Holy examples: a synagogue, a Torah scroll, a rabbi (perhaps).

As the panelists were talking about Martin Buber and the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships, and about the need for a way of understanding human experience and the very idea of a human self somewhere in between the objective (“All of this can be explained scientifically”) and the subjective (“None of this can be explained scientifically”), I found myself thinking of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work The Sabbath, which I have been reading with a group of students this quarter on Monday afternoons. In one of many memorable lines, Heschel writes, “It is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” For example, you can give someone a gold ring as a gesture of friendship, but that is very different than giving someone the same gold ring under a huppah, which is a gesture of eternity. The significance of the object is derived from the moment, and from the accumulation of moments in which it has been used and acquired its meaning as a symbol.

And this, inevitably, led me to thinking of this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, which presents the radical challenge to the anti-idolatry project of the Torah. Eleh elohecha Yisrael, “This is your God, O Israel,” Aaron introduces the Calf to the people. Whether the mishkan comes as a response to, or an anticipation of, the Calf, the Torah here wrestles with the fact that human beings live in bodies, and therefore need relationships with other things that have bodies. To relate to an unembodied God is a profoundly difficult thing. Quoting J.L. Marion, Marc-Alain Ouaknin writes:

What the idol tries to reduce is the gap and the withdrawal of the divine… Filling in for the absence of the divinity, the idol brings the divine within reach, ensures its presence, and, eventually, distorts it. Its completion finishes the divine off… The idol lacks the distance that identifies and authenticates the divine as such–as that which does not belong to us, but which happens to us. (Ouaknin, The Burnt Book, p. 65)
This is the temptation, the need, we have to objectify: to quantify, to hold onto, to stop time and process. We all have this need. And this, then, is what Judaism at its best responds to. “Six days shall you work, and on the seventh you shall rest” (Ex. 34:21). To close yet again with Heschel, “Creation is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and forever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. God called the world into being, and that call goes on. There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an acct of creation. A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning. Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation. Time is God’s gift to the world of space.” (The Sabbath, p. 100)

Shabbat shalom.