**Note: the blog post is PG. The video clip is not.

As Jonah (11) and I were driving to school this morning, we came up with an idea for the seder that I thought was a good one to share. One kids activity I’ve seen in various haggadot is to invite children to interview the grownups about the Exodus, as though they were news reporters covering the event. Given the preponderance of sports media in our home, Jonah and I played with the idea of making it specifically a sports interview (with the requisite sports interview answers by athletes). For example:

REPORTER: Moses, you’ve just won the Ten Plagues contest! How does it feel?

MOSES: Well Al, it feels really special, of course. I mean, we’ve been working at this for a long time, and to see this moment come true–well, it’s just something we’re going to remember for years and years, I’m sure. I imagine my grandkids–heck, maybe even their grandkids–will be talking about this one.

REPORTER: This was really an amazing victory. Tell me about your game plan taking on the Egyptians.

MOSES: Well, you know, we just wanted to stick with what got us here, you know? Focus on the fundamentals, work together as a team, believe in each other. The Egyptians are an amazing squad, with a really oppressive defense. We just had to be patient, take the opportunities when they came our way. And, you know, have faith.

REPORTER: In the first half, it looked like you might get an early victory. What happened after the fifth plague?

MOSES: Well, it was definitely looking good those first few plagues. I mean, after the blood and the frogs, we figured Pharaoh was ready to cave. But, as I said, they’re a tenacious bunch, and it seems like they just really stiffened their resolve and bore down on their game plan even more. So we knew we were in for a long struggle.

REPORTER: Let’s talk about that tenth plague. Take us inside your thought process on that one.

MOSES: Well, you know, that was the scariest of the whole bunch. I mean, we felt like we just had to huddle up and let the Good Lord do the work. We established good protection for our team, and then the play just took its course. I wouldn’t exactly call it a Hail Mary or anything, but… It was a real test of our resolve.

REPORTER: So you’ve got this championship under your belt. What’s the next step?

MOSES: Well, Al, we just want to take it one step at a time. There are still more majors to win: the Sinai championships are coming up, and after that the Canaan marathon. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But I just think, with this team, anything is possible. And at the end of the day, I just really want to say that I thank God–I mean, God was really on our side in this one.

REPORTER: Thanks Moses, and congratulations again on the championship. Best of luck to you and the Israelites.

MOSES: Thanks Al.

REPORTER: Moses, on winning the Ten Plagues championship over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. An instant classic, isn’t it Heather? Back to you in the studio.

We don’t normally think of teshuva when we think of Pesach. We associate teshuva with Elul, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach, by contrast, we associate with she’elot, questions. As the Mishnah says, v’kan ha-ben shoel et aviv, here the child asks his father. My Pesach preparation in the last few years has focused a lot on those questions—the kinds of questions we ask and the way we ask them. And I think many people take this opportunity to focus on the power of questioning: the way questions break down assumptions, open up possibilities, and thus reflect some basic ideas we have about freedom. To be free is to be able to question.

Answers: Reducing Anxiety

But this year I find myself thinking about answers, teshuvot. Answers are as complicated as questions. On one level, we think of answers as stopping that which questions start, as when a student solves the answer to a problem on her math homework. Answers like this can feel tremendously satisfying, because they reduce our anxiety. The moment of answering is a moment of stabilizing something that was previously unstable, closing a hole that was previously open.

On another level, just as answers can create islands in the waterways opened by questions, they are only oases—they demand further questions. Think of a chess match. White moves, and in so doing asks a question of black: What will you do now? Then black moves, and asks the same question of white. The players repeat this question-and-answer back and forth, and each answer becomes a question, each question an answer, until checkmate: the unanswerable question.

Both these models are evoked in Rabbi Elazar’s instruction in Pirkei Avot: Da mah lehashiv l’apikoros, Know how to answer a heretic (Avot  2:14). The heretic and the believer are not engaged in a dialogue in which they are both searching for something in common. The answer here is weapon, a sword to parry the thrust of the questioner—and the hole he could open by using it. It carries the satisfying sense of argumentation, where questions and answers score points on the way to a victory or defeat.

Question-and-answer as game is one kind of dialogue, most familiar to us as debate, or perhaps witty banter. Humor is also in this family. All of these variants of question-and-answer depend on the parties maintaining a certain distance, from which they can launch their arrows and raise their shields. If they draw too close, the questions-and-answer dialogue would take on a different form: not that of repartee or verbal duel, but of a more intimate conversation.

Question-and-Answer as Intimate Conversation

The goal of this more intimate variety is not to score points or keep the conversation going for the sake of the game, but to commune, to understand and be understood. This is a very different kind of question-and-answer. Here questions may not demand answers, but might simply linger. And answers may not stabilize an unstable situation, but rather seek to be heard and appreciated.

“If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but hashev tashiv lo, be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it ad drosh achikha oto, until they come looking for it, v’hashevoto lo, then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or l’chol avedat achicha asher tovad mimenu,  anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reads this passage to refer to the process of teshuva: We lose parts of our souls as we go through life, and the work of the righteous is to help restore, l’hashiv, those lost pieces of us to ourselves (or, our selves). The language of soul repair fits well with the spirit of the High Holidays. But it also informs our understanding of the she’ela u-teshuva of Pesach: in asking and answering, we are restoring parts of ourselves, and restoring parts of our interlocutors to themselves.

This is further reflected in the language of avedah, that which is lost. Arami oved avi, begins the central Torah text of the Haggadah (Deuteronomy 26). The Mishnah instructs us to expound, doresh, on this short history of the Jewish people’s journey to Egypt, their enslavement there, and their liberation by God. These first words are Rabbinically interpreted as either “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” in which case it refers to Jacob, or “An Aramean sought to destroy my ancestor,” in which case it refers to Laban. The language of oved is derived from the same root, ABD, as the word avedah, a lost object—or a lost part of the soul, in Rebbe Nachman’s expansive understanding. And according to the verse in Deuteronomy, the teshuva can only happen ad drosh achikha, when we demand it.

What Kind of Answers Do We Seek?

If a teshuva is not simply a move in a game, but rather the process of restoring the lost part of ourselves, that which makes us oved, wandering, then the questions and answers in which we engage on Seder night are not simply about satisfying curiosity about this or that rule, or the historical reason for this or that custom. Our process of she’ela u-teshuva is about something far deeper, something that emerges from our own derisha, what we demand of ourselves, our interlocutors, and the Torah. Through our question-and-answer, we recognize that each of us is also an oved, there is something out there for which we must search. And each of us is able to offer teshuva, to help recover the part of us that is missing. This happens through a process of derisha and midrash.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. v’heshiv lev avot al banaim, v’lev banim al avotam: He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” These closing verses of the book of Malachi are the culmination of the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. The teshuva of our seder conversation is this teshuva: not merely questions and answers about facts (as in the most common question: Is this kosher for Passover?), or questions and answers to score points (“Do you know how many times the Torah instructs us to remember we were slaves in Egypt? Let me show you what I know.”), but questions and answers that reflect and propel the relationship of parents and children, and of the ultimate Parent with all children. This is teshuva not merely as answer, but more as return, reply, response—evoking the sense of responsibility we have toward one another as members of the covenant. This the teshuva that Pesach demands of us.

Chag kasher v’sameach, and may we all be blessed with genuine she’elot u-teshuvot this Pesach.

Originally published at the Huffington Post.

I am a rabbi. When I tell people that I lead a program called Ask Big Questions, many of them respond something like this: “Oh, that makes so much sense. Judaism is all about asking questions!” Jews are a people who love questions, who are characterized by questions, who “answer a question with a question.” Or so we tell ourselves.

At Passover we encounter this line of thinking a lot. The Haggadah’s Four Questions, its question-and-answer of the Four Sons, the Talmud’s instruction that if one is having a seder alone, one must still ask oneself, What makes this night different? – all of these elaborate on the basic theme of Judaism’s love of questions. In his outstanding Haggadah, Rabbi Mishael Zion quotes Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who puts the sentiment beautifully: “Autocrats hate questions. We train children at the Passover Seder to ask why, because tyrants are undone and liberty is won with a good question. It is for this reason that God loves it when we ask why.”

But the Jewish People has no monopoly on questions. The most famous questioner in history was Socrates. The great philosophers, artists, writers, and political leaders who have asked powerful questions are, by and large, not Jews. Yes, Talmudic reasoning is animated by question-and-answer, but so are most quality intellectual traditions. So to say that asking questions is an inherently Jewish activity isn’t true. Jews may revel in questions more than some others, but the act of questioning belongs to all human beings.

Nevertheless, there is no disputing that the Seder is a night of questions. It is a night for discovery of the new. But it is also a night for rediscovery of what we already know. Questions become gateways to new reading, to new understanding, to “modes whereby to discover, interminably, new relationships or subtle correspondences, beauty kept secret or hidden intentions,” in the words of French philosopher (and Jew) Vladimir Jankelevitch. The questions of the Seder express the rebirth and renewal of the spring, the Jewish people’s season of redemption.

But not all questions lead to this kind of experience. There are different types of questions, and there are different ways to use questions. Questions can lead to connection and learning, but they can also lead to disconnection and disintegration. Questions can be used to build up, but they can also be used to destroy. All questions are not created equal.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great Torah scholars of the twentieth century, elaborated on this theme in explaining the answer prescribed for the Wicked Son in the Haggadah. The Haggadah reads:

The Wicked Son, what does he ask? ‘What does this ritual mean to you?’ To you, and not to him. By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: ‘It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt’; for me, but not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Among the striking elements of this passage is the fact that in the previous paragraph, the Haggadah tells us that the Wise Son also asks a question in the second person: “What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” Like the Wicked Son, the Wise Son refers to “you,” and not to “us.” So why does the Haggadah come down so hard on the Wicked Son?

Rav Hutner comments that the issue here is the Wicked Son’s stance in asking his question. “The Wicked Son does not contribute to fulfilling the commandment to discuss the Exodus through question-and-answer,” he writes in his work, the Pachad Yizchak. “Only a question genuinely asked as a question contributes to fulfillment of the commandment.” The spirit, the tone, the emotion behind, surrounding, and within a question, matters just as much as the words of the question itself.

This is one of the most important insights of the Seder into the dynamic of questions: Questions don’t exist independent of a questioner. A question must be asked in order to exist. And thus a question implies a relationship, a stance of the questioner to the one to whom the question is asked. Yes, as Steven Greenberg reminds us, questions can be sources of instability, harbingers of revolution. But questions, when asked genuinely and coupled with real listening, are also seed-bearers of conversation and mutual understanding, of empathy and community.

The Wicked Son is the person who uses his question as a weapon, who is not interested in listening. He is there to remind us, through a negative example, of the amazing potential of questions.

The Seder is a night of questions. But more than this, the Seder is a night of questions and stories. It is a night of renewing relationships—to one another, to ourselves, to our tradition, to God. The Seder calls us to ask our questions with generosity. It demands of us to take our questions seriously, not only as an intellectual or rhetorical exercise, but with our whole self.

So when we say that the Jewish people are a people of questions, and that Passover is a holiday of questions and questioning, let’s delve a little deeper into what we mean. The great questions—the Big Questions—of Jewish tradition are ones that invite us into an eternal conversation. They are questions asked by everyone in every generation, questions that matter to everyone and that everyone can and must answer. In asking those questions, in having those conversations, we renew our lives and our commitments. That is what we aim for in the questions of the Seder.

An unusual occurrence will happen in traditional synagogues around the world this Shabbat. During a regular Shabbat morning service, we take out one Torah scroll from the ark. When Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, we take out an additional Torah scroll, from which we read a passage from Numbers 28 that details the communal sacrifice offered in the ancient Temple on Rosh Hodesh. Rosh Hodesh falls on Shabbat one or two times a year, so this isn’t terribly unusual.

What is much rarer is what happens on this Shabbat, when we take out a third Torah scroll. That’s because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaHodesh–the Shabbat two weeks before Passover, when we read the passage from Exodus 12 in which God instructs the Israelites to prepare for Passover. When Shabbat HaHodesh falls on Rosh Hodesh itself, we take out three scrolls. And that is a pretty rare occurrence. (For you trivia buffs: The only other times this can happen are on Rosh Hodesh Tevet, which falls during Hannukah, and Rosh Hodesh Adar that which coincides with Shabbat Shekalim. These occurrences happen about once every three years.)

The coincidence of Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat HaHodesh prompts us to think about the observance of Rosh Hodesh itself. “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year'” (Ex. 12:1-2). As Nachmanides reminds us, “This is the first commandment that the Holy One Blessed Be He gives to Israel through Moses.” Indeed, Rashi’s very first comment on Genesis 1:1 points to this verse, as he asks why the Torah, which is after all a book of law, doesn’t simply begin here. So this verse is important.

While the main emphasis of Exodus 12, and the primary reason we read it just before Passover, is its instructions for preparing the Pesach sacrifice, the fact that the verse begins with the institution of Rosh Hodesh is significant. Slavery operates not only in physical dimensions, taking away the slave’s ability to freely act; it also affects the dimension of time. A slave’s time is not his own. Thus a basic aspect of freedom is the freedom of time, the freedom to set the calendar, to order the world in our own way. So the first act of liberation for the Israelites is God’s granting them the ability to name time on their own.

This continues to be on of the key aspects of Rosh Hodesh in Jewish history. The Talmud devotes an entire tractate, Rosh Hashanah, to the laws about declaring Rosh Hodesh. The New Moon does not simply happen on its own, at least not in classical Jewish law. It has to be witnessed, and the witnesses have to testify in the rabbinic court that they have seen the new moon. Then the court declares that the month has started. So powerful is this human dimension in making time that the Talmud recounts that one year the angels in heaven were all assembled for Rosh Hashanah, but since the court did not declare the New Moon that day, they packed up their things, went home, and came back the next day for the holiday.

And yet this freedom of time is not absolute. As the Torah reading for Shabbat-Rosh Hodesh reminds us, Shabbat comes every seven days whether we like it or not. While we acknowledge the start of Shabbat by lighting candles and reciting Kiddush, the power of those acts is not the same as the declarative power of the witnesses and the court regarding Rosh Hodesh. In this sense, Shabbat reminds us that our freedom is not a freedom to do whatever we like; it is rather a freedom to be servants of God. It is also a reminder that, at the same time as we stand over against nature (what Rav Soloveitchik referred to as an Adam I consciousness), we are also creatures of nature (Adam II). We can name natural phenomena, manipulate them as we construct our world (as we do on some level with the moon and creating the calendar through Rosh Hodesh); but we also exist within nature and accept our place within it with humility–not as slaves, but as free people.

Rashi quotes the Midrash Mechilta as noting significance to the fact that God instructs Moses and Aaron “in the land of Egypt,” meaning outside of the city. Why? The Mechilta states that the city was full of idolatry–whereas beyond its boundary was a place where God’s word could be heard and experienced. In this small way, the Torah seems to gesture at the idea that the liberation from Egypt was a kind of re-creation of the world, as Moses and Aaron must go back to a natural place to hear God’s voice. Every Rosh Hodesh since then is a time of renewal and restarting–not only of the lunar cycle, but of our own lives.

Shabbat shalom, and Hodesh tov.

Hallel, the collection of psalms we recite on holidays, begins with Psalm 113. The psalm opens with some expected praises of God (this is Hallel, after all), and ultimately makes its way to this particular formulation (vv. 7-9):

He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

He seats them with princes, with the princes of his people;

He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.

The narrative suggested by the Psalm is that of the Exodus: the lowly Israelites are taken from the lowest point (slavery) and brought to the highest point (becoming God’s people at Sinai). This is a normative traditional understanding of the Psalm, and would seem to be a key factor in its placement at the start of Hallel, since Hallel is recited at the seder, and the recitation of Hallel is rooted in the experience of the liberation from Egypt. In fact, this particular Psalm is recited as part of the Maggid section of the Seder–it precedes the meal–and is therefore understood to be the culmination of the Rabbis’ instruction to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise” (Pesachim 116a).

Yet there’s something very interesting in the formulation of these verses. Verse 7 makes sense: raising the poor, lifting the needy. But what about verse 8: What does the psalmist mean in saying that the poor is seated not only with princes, but with the princes of his people? This would imply that there were already princes among them. It could therefore refer to Moses (though he was a prince among the Egyptians). It could refer to the first-born or the elders among the Israelites.

In his Haggadah, Rabbi David Silber points to a more likely possibility. The word translated here as “prince” is the Hebrew term nadiv. This word suggests not so much the office or status of a noble, but rather the characteristic of nobility. It is linked to the term for generosity: nedavah (a free-will offering), or nediv-lev (one whose heart moves him to contribute).  Here the idea of nobility is bound up with what noble people do: they’re generous. It is not about station, but about behavior and character.

Thus to be “seated with the princes of his people” is perhaps a broader suggestion. Rabbi Silber points us to the first use of the term in the Torah, which comes at the beginning of this week’s parasha (Ex. 25:2): “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give,” kol ish asher yidvenu-libo. After Revelation, God creates the possibility for every Israelite to be generous through the joint project of building the Mishkan. Everyone can give. And in giving, everyone can be a person who gives–a nadiv, a noble.

There’s an important message here about collective belonging, one that can inform all of our group experiences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book The Home We Build Together, “A nation is built by building.” So are communities, companies, congregations, sports teams, and families. But there’s also an important message about the Exodus: the culmination of the Exodus is not the crossing of the sea, and not even the revelation of the Torah. The culmination of the Exodus is in the building of the Mishkan, in the empowerment of the powerless to be noble, to be generous, to contribute. That is why we sing Psalm 113 before our meal at the Seder, and it is why the last 15 chapters of the book of Exodus are devoted to the story of the Mishkan.

Shabbat shalom.


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.

Shabbat shalom.


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.

Shabbat shalom.

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.

Shabbat shalom.

One of the keywords of the Torah portion of Va’etchanan is shema, listen. Famously, of course, this is the parasha of the prayer known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). But shema appears many other times in the parasha as well:

“Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you.” (4:1)

“Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (4:6)

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (4:12)

And, in its most concentrated presentation: “When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leaders of your tribes and your elders came to me. 24 And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. 25 But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. 26 For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? 27 Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” (5:23-27)

This emphasis on hearing is counterpoised with the strong emphasis against idolatry of not only this parasha, but of Deuteronomy in general–idolatry, which is most acutely manifested in the visual sense: “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.” (4:15-19)

All of which prompts us to reflect on listening, and what makes it distinct from sight. To be sure, listening can be just as susceptible to idolatry as sight: Words can themselves become static forms, taking on the fixity and seeming permanence of a visual idol. Thus Rashi’s famous statement on the last line of the Torah: “God said, ‘Yishar kochacha,’ well done, for breaking the tablets.'” (Rashi Deut. 34:12) Moses demonstrated that even the words of the Ten Commandments themselves must be living, not set in stone. The powers of speech and listening retain an elasticity, a dynamism and power of change, that sight, with its feeling of greater permanence, lacks.

This informs the commandment to parents at the Passover seder: “In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” 21 tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Before our eyes the LORD sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. 23 But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors.” (Deut. 6:20-23) Here the parent is to engage the child’s sense of hearing, while appealing to the power of the sense of sight. That is, the parent evokes in the child a sense of visual memory–a powerful, striking memory. But ultimately the parent does not present the child with a picture, but rather with words. It is up to the child to interpret and re-member the memory in his or her own uniqueness.

Maggid, the central story-telling section of the Seder, is preceded by Yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah. Ouankin observes: “That breaking is an invitation to the reader to enter the text to say his own word there. That is why the following part is called Maggid, ‘he tells,’ rather than simply ‘the account.’ The reader of the Haggadah is not merely the keeper of the text, but also its co-author. The reader is not the dazzled or bored spectator of a story made elsewhere, with which he or she has only a distant relationship. The text speaks to us, about us, and about our own history.”

Education begins with education. “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach,” said Hillel. To listen requires humility, a willingness to be broken, to forgo the false security of permanence and idolatry. Listening is not simply the copying of one person’s meaning into the heart of another–that is an impossible task. Rather, the challenge and the enchantment of human communication is precisely that we must put together the meaning of the words of another, even of God, in good faith and true listening. Shema Yisrael.

Shabbat shalom.

The coincidence of parashat Acharei Mot and the Shabbat before Passover (Shabbat HaGadol) prompts comparisons between Yom Kippur and Pesach. Acharei Mot provides the basis for Yom Kippur, a day of innui, affliction. Pesach, which arrives Monday night, is when we eat lechem oni, the bread of affliction.

Yom Kippur is a deeply personal holiday in many respects. It is the day when we each, individually, account for our actions and renew our relationship with God. It has a national aspect as well, but this is in large measure subordinated to the personal—this despite the fact that the holiday is generally observed in large communal settings, most notably synagogue. Passover, by contrast, is our national holiday. While there is an important individual aspect to it, the thrust of the holiday is national renewal and remembrance of the national narrative. In contrast to Yom Kippur, Passover is observed primarily in the home, not in the synagogue.

Whereas the Yom Kippur ritual is fixed and essentially unchanging from year to year, the Seder invites and encourages play and change within its structure. The Kohen Gadol performed the same ritual year after year in the ancient Temple, and we read the same words about his activities year after year. But the Haggadah of the Seder is reprinted with new commentaries, new midrash, new ideas every year, and no two seders ever look the same.

The Mishnah draws a further comparison between the two holidays in analyzing the preparation undertaken for each:

We do not worry that a mouse may have dragged hametz from house to house or from place to place, for if we did, we would have to worry that hametz had been dragged from courtyard to courtyard or from city to city, and there would be no end to the matter. (Mishnah Pesachim 1:2)

Seven days before Yom Kippur they would take the High Priest from his house to the Palhedrin Chamber. They would appoint another priest to act in his stead in case he became unfit to perform the service. Rabbi Yehudah says: They would even appoint another wife for him, in case his wife died, since the Torah says, “And he will atone for himself and his household” (Lev. 16). His wife is his household. The Sages replied, “If so, there would be no end to the matter.”

The discussion of the Rabbis in both these cases elaborates on one of the challenges common to both Pesach and Yom Kippur: the yearning for finality and the insecurity of uncertainty. Despite all our cleaning, despite all our preparations, nothing is static—hametz could land on our doorstep as we begin the seder, something could happen to the High Priest’s wife as he enters the Holy of Holies. These things are beyond our control, and yet we worry lest they happen. The position of Rabbi Yehudah, and the unspoken position rebutted by the Mishnah in Pesachim, give voice to these doubts and uncertainties: batten down the hatches, take every possible precaution, you can never be too prepared. But then the voice of reality sets in, and the Sages rule: If so, there would be no end to the matter.

We are likely not worried about mice, and we are not concerned today that something might happen to the High Priests. Yet our insecurities remain: Did we clean enough? Did we ask for forgiveness from everyone whom we wronged? We can always do more. Yet the Torah responds to human needs on human scale: At a certain point, we have to say enough is enough. At Yom Kippur, that exercise is known as accepting forgiveness, truly believing that God has granted selicha and mechila. At Pesach, it comes in the form of bitul: on the morning before Passover, we relinquish ownership of all our hametz, such that, as Maimonides says, we could see a loaf of bread on our dining room table and have no thought that it belongs to us.

Yom Kippur and Pesach are two moments of our most intense encounters with the Jewish calendar, when we are challenged to find the point of integration between ourselves and the larger covenantal community of the Jewish people throughout space and time—a community that includes Jews throughout the ages and the God who took us out of Egypt and forgives us year after year. Each holiday emphasizes a different dimension of this process, but the endpoint in both is renewal and temimut, integrity.

Chag sameach.