The One Question for the Passover Seder

The story is told of a dying sage surrounded by admiring disciples intent on obtaining the key to life. “What’s the answer?” they ask. “It depends,” the sage replies. “What is the question?”

That really is sage advice. Everything depends on the question we ask.

This questioning goes back to the seder’s origins, the Mishnah, which says, “The second cup of wine is poured, and here the son asks the father.” But what does he ask? The Mishnah does not say, and for centuries the question or questions varied. The Talmud lists our four questions but just as suggestions of the kind of thing a child might notice and inquire about. Only in the Middle Ages did they somehow become “official”.

Even then, however, it was the father who asked them, not the children – a sign that they are symbolic of deeper questions that only adults are able to contemplate. Eventually, the questions were relegated to children, but not on that account made central to the evening’s proceedings. Only with the baby-boomer generation did we come to treat them as virtually sacrosanct – a sign of post-World-War-II Judaism, in general, becoming “pediatric”: religion as a childhood diversion that adults no longer believe.

Until then, the point of the seder was hardly children chanting questions memorized in religious school; it was adults deliberating the consequences of taking Jewish existence seriously. The “four sons narrative,” is not really about “sons” or even about “children.” Adults too can be wise, evil, foolish or just plain uninvolved.

“Even if we were all wise and all knowledgeable” the Talmud says, “we would still be obliged to relate the Passover story.” But why? If we were so smart, wouldn’t we already know it? My Talmud teacher, Samuel Atlas, of blessed memory, answered this objection by observing that the underlying question for Passover changes with the times. Mah nishtanah… “Why is this night different” should be read symbolically to mean “Why are our times different?” What question should preoccupy us in our time?

I do not mean a passing question for 2018 alone. I mean an ongoing question of substance; and because Passover marks our birth as a People, I mean the most pressing question possible for the Jewish People’s continued existence. What is that question?

The child-centeredness of the seder’s questions is not altogether an error, if we redefine “children” as the next generation, the young adult millennials who fault their elders for asking old questions rather than facing up to a new one. Here’s their burning question: Why be Jewish altogether? Or, translated into seder language: Why does it matter that God delivered us from Egypt in the first place?

That question is anathema to most of my generation who think Jewish existence requires no justification. In every generation (the Haggadah says) people rise up to enslave or even kill us. But God saves us – or, in more modern, even Zionistic, language, we fight to save ourselves.  What more do we need to know?

But, the millennials say, for what end? What’s the point of it all? If being Jewish has no transcendent purpose, then why bother?

We left Egypt to serve God: that’s the Torah’s answer. Do people still believe that? What does “service of God” mean today? Without thinking that through, we will have nothing to say “when our children ask,” and we will perish – not by others who rise up against us, but by our own intellectual lethargy. Passover insists that Judaism matters profoundly. Our seder this year should explain why.

 

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Our Love Affair With Doctors

The age-old Jewish love affair with medicine began this week, as it were: with Exodus 21:18/19, which discusses mayhem, the willful assault by one person upon another. According to Torah, the guilty party must provide healing for the victim — from which the Talmud deduces (BK 85a) the aggressor’s obligation to pay for medical care (with extra remuneration for pain, humiliation, and damages for loss of income, as well).

If the injuring party is also a doctor, who offers his/her own medical services instead of paying someone else, the injured party can refuse, because, to the victim, the assailant is like “a lion lying in wait,” and victims have the right to doctors whom they trust. Nor can the assailant supply a doctor-friend who will heal for free, since the victim can argue that “a doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing” (BK 85a).

In addition, the assailant cannot claim (for example) that the victim need only pray and God will answer the prayer, because, says Rashi, it is forbidden to rely on God alone to provide healing, The Tosafot go farther, specifying consultation with doctors also for what we would call “acts of God”; even there, we cannot count on God alone to “undo the damage.”

The Talmud prohibits Jews from even dwelling in a town where there is no doctor (San. 17b).

So early on, Judaism decided that we cannot trust simply on God, that doctors are therefore necessary, that they may charge for what they do; and that those who need healing have a right to it. Pretty advanced thinking for late antiquity and The Middle Ages, I would say!

Yet inexplicably, the same Talmud also says (M. Kid. 4:14 = Kid. 82a), “The best of doctors belong in Hell” (gehinnom, in talmudic parlance). It’s only a side (and snide) comment, one of many unauthoritative aphorisms, so we cannot put much stock in it.  But we learn a lot from later rabbinic attempts to understand it. The comment pointedly specifies doctors who are “the best,” not “the most righteous,” we are told, having in mind doctors who think they are beyond the obligation to heal the poor (Rashi); or those whose arrogance prevents them from consulting with medical colleagues in cases of medical uncertainty (Maharsha, Samuel Edels, Poland, 1555-1631).

When it comes to valuing life and those who help sustain it, rabbinic tradition has much to be proud of.

But the Rabbis do not just anticipate modern-day perspectives. They offer a spiritual insight that is nowadays easily forgotten. Healing derives ultimately from God, they insist, so physicians do their work as deputies from God. To be called to the profession of healing is to be God’s presence in the face of pain. But it is more, even, than that.  Since God’s ultimate presence is seen in the original act of creation, healing must be viewed as the continuation of that act.

As a prisoner in Auschwitz, Primo Levi remembers having to watch a man die slowly on the gallows. As the victim twists in agony, Levi thinks, “To destroy a man is almost as difficult as to create one.” Like the gallows, disease too slowly destroys what God has created – destruction and sickness on one hand; creation and healing on the other. Those who heal are the antithesis of destroyers; they create new lives for those they save.

Each morning, we say a blessing that praises God for “healing and doing miracle work” (rofei kol basar umafli la’asot). “Healing,” then, is “miracle work.” We may know how medicine works its wonders, but it remains a wonder nonetheless — a miracle that anything works at all. The best of doctors are not those who deserve gehinnom, but those who stand in awe at the gift of being God’s personal agents on earth, charged with nothing short of creating lives as God once did.

 

 

 

 

Cracow, Auschwitz, and Egypt: Lest Memory Fail

Cracow is a city where Jewish grandmothers used to sit and drink their “glass of tea.” When I visited Cracow’s Jewish quarter, twenty-five years ago, the only Jews drinking tea were visitors like me “coming home” to sip the taste of life as our grandmothers had described it. When I visited again last year, the quarter was rebuilt and reenergized: instead of grandmothers in kitchens drinking tea, young people on street corners ordering lattes.

Twenty-five years ago, the ghostly remains of Cracow synagogues silhouetted huddles of elderly men — memory brokers selling painful recollections to pilgrims like me. They are gone today, as are their first-hand memories of the way it really was. This time round, my bright and bouncy guide duly walked me past the corner where Jews were rounded up for deportation, but all she had was distant history: what researchers  uncovered and then wrote down for her to read and then tell me. How easily memory fossilizes into history.

We need real memory, this week’s Torah portion insists, for the Haggadah’s “four sons” who ask “why?” – not just of Egypt but of Cracow too: as it says, “When your children ask you, tell them….”

Tell them what? How God took us out of Egypt? No problem. But also, “What happened to the Jewish grandmothers who once smiled over glasses of Cracow tea?” What do you tell them when memory becomes history and history is just not good enough?

For a while, memorials keep memories fresh: as at Auschwitz.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first walked the rusting Auschwitz railroad tracks that once brought cattle cars of Jews to die, I felt it in my bones. It was winter, very cold, with darkening skies scowling down on the barren grounds; and I, the only visitor on that late December afternoon. The chill was everywhere, as was the horror of the place as if it were still up and running and smoking with the stench of Jewish bodies.

This time round, Auschwitz the memorial had become Auschwitz the museum, but not a good one. It was more like a theme park, where visitors are herded through with earphones tuned to robotic explanations intoned by guides whom they can barely see. The young man behind me shuffled past the glass-encased exhibits of suitcases, shoes, and hair — drinking a Coke. Did he even vaguely comprehend the final ignominy? All that’s left of all those Jews, under glass!

What happens when guides know only the history they studied in “guide” school; and memorials become semi-autonomous guided tours?

I now appreciate the Torah’s admonition that we set aside as sacred a day of memory (Ex. 12:14) and a night of watching (12:42), to recollect what we can for our “four sons” – as if we really had been there.

To foolish children, we can do no more than summarize our story in a single simple line, and hope for the best.

Worse are evil children who think Hitler happened to someone else. Auschwitz is just one more museum, like the one downtown with old Greek sculpture. Cracow is just one more city with bars and night life.

The wise, thank God, insist on knowing it all, getting it straight, and maybe (with effort) dredging up some distant memory and making it their own.

But I like best the child who “knows not what to ask.” I have come to admire that child as no simpleton at all, for what can you ask, if you begin to grasp what Auschwitz really was? And how can we respond, except to do the impossible: to convey the Auschwitz story as if we still remember it, the way we remember the Exodus, as if we ourselves had been there?

The seder is not just fun and food. It is for children to know that in Egypt, Jews went free; and in Auschwitz they did not. And then to move on, but with a memory in mind not a Coca Cola in hand.

 

The Jacob-Joseph Generation

[I didn’t get this posted on time; but here it is, just a bit late]

Repeatedly, the Torah highlights toldot, “generations.” Only three weeks ago, our sedra went by that name, and now we see it again. The Joseph story begins by announcing, “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph was 17 years old.” The introduction of Joseph is apt, but why include Jacob’s toldot?

Ibn Ezra translates toldot as “events,” not “generations,” as if to say, “So far we have chronicled the events of Jacob’s life. Now we get the events that Joseph had to face.” The “generation” we are in, apparently, is not so much about our age, as it is about the events that make us who we are.

But still, “These are the generations of Jacob” should have been placed two chapters back, where those generations are actually listed. The appearance of the sentence here remains a puzzle.

M’nachem Mendel of Rimenov explains it by reading Jacob-Joseph as a single hyphenated name. “We cannot be satisfied” he says,” with what we have done in the past. We must ever strive for more.” Jacob, that is, must become Joseph.

We can go even further. If we put a period after “Joseph,” the cryptic line can mean, “These are generations: Jacob-Joseph!” – as if two generations become linked as one: the generation of Jacob’s youth, now past; and the generation of his old age, the generation of Joseph, which Jacob chooses to join.

Whatever our age, we can elect to leave one generation and join another just by addressing the problems of today rather than those of yesterday. The alternative is to watch history happen from the sidelines while living less and less comfortably in the irrelevant past. We can live off our memories and remain just Jacob; or we can be part of the future as Jacob-Joseph.

Over the years, we have known many generational challenges, each one requiring the elders of the past to face a novel future.

The first Jews to arrive here had to prove they belonged. Governor Peter Stuyvesant tried to keep the first Sefardi settlers out of New York (New Amsterdam, then); during the civil war, General Grant tried to ban German Jewish traders from the front, because he suspected their loyalty.

We prevailed and became part of America, but had little time to enjoy the privilege, before Jews from eastern Europe began flooding our cities, requiring Jews already here to see to their care. And those Jews had barely settled in when Hitler arrived with World War II and the Holocaust, bringing the altogether new challenge of guaranteeing Jewish survival after losing 6,000,000. We established a Jewish State; saw it through the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars; built up UJA; saved Soviet “Refuseniks”; and invested in Jewish education, lest Jewish ignorance give Hitler a posthumous victory.

But that’s all history: all just Jacob. The next generation is asking a question that can sound like heresy to its elders. Why be Jewish altogether? Why does Judaism matter in the first place? That’s the voice of the new generation: the voice of Joseph.

If you’re Jacob, you either hunker down in nostalgia for yesterday, while berating Joseph for not caring; or you join Joseph in search of an answer – you become Jacob-Joseph.

If you choose the latter, then you ask, with Joseph, “Why be Jewish?” Is Judaism merely “tribal” or can it speak to the human condition in general and the current moment in particular? Can it offer spiritual and moral sustenance in an era that seems increasingly to lack both?

Can Judaism provide hope for aging baby-boomers who struggle with mortality? Guidance for college graduates who lack direction? Passion for millennials who find established Jewish life sterile? A Jewish state that speaks meaningfully to a generation for whom Zionism is ancient history?

Once just Jacob, meeting challenges of the past, we are charged now to be Jacob-Joseph, to join the new generation and remake Judaism all over again: as a compelling moral and spiritual legacy for our time.

 

 

“Careers” or What’s Worth Living For

Way back in 1955, for just $2.97, you could purchase Careers, a game like Monopoly, but instead of buying up real estate, players designed a personalized formula for career satisfaction, and moved around the board collecting points toward achieving it. Their formula could be any combination they wished of “money fame and happiness.”

Not surprisingly, Judaism has its own triads to conjure with: “The world stands on Torah, worship, and good deeds”; or (alternatively) “on truth, justice, and peace” (Avot  1:2, 1:18). These, however, dictate what we contribute to the world, not what we receive back from it. Does Judaism provide a recipe for personal satisfaction, the way Careers  does?

The Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev provides exactly that, by applying kabbalah to Abraham, the first of the three biblical patriarchs, who is charged, Lekh l’kha, “Go out”  into the world to work. He identifies Abraham with love; Isaac with power; and Jacob with glory. Like the “money, fame, and happiness” of Careers, “love, power, and glory” are Levi Yitzchak’s set of what life offers.

Why, then, he asks, does the Amidah, Judaism’s most important daily prayer, begin by praising “God of Abraham” (love) while omitting “God of Isaac and Jacob” (power and glory)? Because, he replies, power and glory are valuable only when they lead to love.

The least desirable option may be power. It derives from many things — money, social standing, and political intrigue, for example — the attainment of which may entail dealings that are morally repugnant. And once we have the power, we may use it equally despicably. There is nothing inherently wrong with power, however, if it is exercised for human betterment, a value in itself, and the means toward winning the love of those whom that power benefits.

Glory too is well worth having, but not for its own sake. Glory alone is ephemeral. People glorify us with praise and honors when we are at our height, but we inevitably age while others occupy the spotlight. When we die, people need reminding about how famous we once were; we don’t even get to enjoy our own eulogies. Like power, however, glory has the potential to attract love, since the glory we enjoy positions us to influence the course of the world, and to be loved for the good we accomplish.

Both power and glory succeed only if exercised in ways that demonstrate our love for others, and earn the love of others in return. Any way you look at it, says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, success in the end is love: love offered and love received.

Looking back on Careers, I wonder now why players sometimes chose money and fame without happiness. The answer lies in the era itself, the 1950s and ‘60s, the decades after World War II when the booming American economy focused on boys becoming men (not yet girls becoming women), and men (not yet women) achieving money and fame. We now include women also, and seeing how many men of that “men-only” era died “successfully” rich and famous but not happy, we have collapsed “money, fame, and happiness” into “happiness” alone as the sole be-all and end-all.

Find your passion; do what makes you happy. This is today’s mantra for success in our careers.

By contrast, Levi Yitzchak advocates love as the only thing worth having; and his concern is not just the careers we choose but the lives we lead. Also, the love he advocates is more than romantic love that may or may not come our way. He means the love we earn from family, friends, and neighbors – but strangers too, even people far away who benefit unknowingly from what we do and never know our name.

Love, after all, is Abraham, who, God promised, would be a “blessing to all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:2-3). Forget Careers. Practice Lekh l’kha. “Go out” into the world to be a blessing, to love and to be loved. That’s all that matters.

Thinking “Analog”

These middle days of Sukkot are called chol hamo’ed, literally, “the ordinary [part] of the sacred.” We never use the English because without an explanation, it makes no sense.

A better “translation” might be “Not completely sacred, but not completely ordinary either; instead, a mixture of both”: sacred, because these days are part of Sukkot; but ordinary, because only the first and last days of Sukkot week are altogether holy.

All of which raises the problem of how to treat things that are “both/and” rather than “one or the other.”

Take the issue of funerals, for example. Jewish law advocates burial as quickly as possible, lest we have to watch bodily decomposition (common in hot climates during Talmudic times) and look away in disgust (a violation of the Jewish value of respecting the dead). Holidays, however, entail a countervailing obligation to rejoice.  So burials on Sukkot are postponed a day. Immediate relatives will probably be saddened anyway, but Jewish law obligates everyone familiar with the deceased to attend the funeral (again, to respect the dead), and they should not have their joy ruined by a funeral on a holiday.

So far, so good; but chol hamo’ed is partly sacred (funerals are prohibited) and partly ordinary (funerals are required). So on chol hamo’ed, we compromise. We do the funeral to respect the dead; but we shorten the service, to minimize the lessening of holiday joy.

At stake is the larger philosophical question of whether to measure experience digitally or by analog. We prefer digital readouts that measure things with convenient precision. But life is really more like old-time analog devices: mercury thermometers and clocks with sweep hands — sliding from one exact temperature, time and distance to the next one. Digital measurements convert messy analog imprecision into satisfying (but unreal) certainty. As our culture goes increasingly digital, we risk thinking that life is digital too – a set of clear-cut choices between one certainty and another. In truth, however, life is like chol hamo’ed — a messy mixture.

Rabbinic thinking, generally (not just for chol hamo’ed), recognizes this messiness. Talmudic debate often cites contrary opinions, and then applies them both — not universally, but for different circumstances, because “one size” never “fits all.” In matters of unclarity, it asks, b’mai askinan (“What are we dealing with here?”), a request for the conditions where the rule applies. Rules need not hold universally. Rules regularly conflict. Very few answers apply across the board.

Fanaticism is the faulty assumption that the world is “digital” like our readouts, altogether black or white, no complexity allowed. Take criminality: Criminals are criminals, and should be punished; but they may also be first offenders, juveniles, mentally impaired, or Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. Thinking digitally, his single-minded pursuer, Inspector Javert, applies justice absolutely, missing the intricacies of the case. So too in politics: good people who differ on principal ought to see that real life demands sometimes one position, sometimes the other, and oftentimes, mixtures of both.

We even picture God (on these High Holidays just past) as a mixture of justice and mercy, not just one or the other. Beware of extremists who simplify a world as if they know more than God.

The next time you attend an important meeting, watch how people vote. Some of the people sitting around the table will pause reflectively to weigh the issues, and then thoughtfully raise their hand. Others will raise their hand so ferociously that they risk disconnecting their arm from its socket. Here’s a rule of thumb: mental health varies inversely with the ferocity behind the way people throw up their hand to vote.

Life’s serious issues are usually dilemmas: the meeting place of two opposite and potentially valid positions – cases, that is, of chol hamo’ed  messiness: not a misleading digital readout making it one thing or another, but an analog mixture of them both. To be sure, we need to vote our conscience in the end, but, generally speaking, with at least a little humility.

 

 

Not Knowledge But Wisdom

We confuse knowledge with wisdom. “Knowledge” derives from demonstrable facts: the facts of science, for example, which no serious and informed person can reasonably reject. We may debate alternative interpretations, but the debate will be demonstrably knowledgeable.

Some knowledge arrives less scientifically: how we know someone loves us, or the way a brilliant portrait catches the essence of its subject. These things too are “knowledge.”

Wisdom is something else altogether. It is insight into living deeply and well. All the knowledge in the world need not add up to wisdom, and wisdom can come from someone with no formal education whatever – “out of the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes (from Psalms 8:2, actually).

Religion converts knowledge into wisdom. A scholar may be exceptionally knowledgeable about the Talmud. The same scholar becomes your rabbi , however, only if that knowledge supplies wisdom also.

The S’lichot  service, this Saturday night, anticipates the High Holidays that begin just a few days later. We label them “high” because of the wisdom, not the knowledge, they provide. Take sermons, for example. Packed only with knowledge, they fail. What we want from sermons is wisdom, that we may live better.

So too, High Holiday prayers offer wisdom, rather than knowledge. Sh’ma koleinu  (“[God], hear our voice”), for example, is a central S’lichot  prayer. The searcher after knowledge questions scientifically if God can really hear, and, if so, how God does the hearing. “Renew our days, as of old,” the prayer continues. The seeker after knowledge is skeptical: Can we really recover the days of our youth?

As knowledge, these prayers fail.  God is not a super-human being with extra-sharp hearing; and the past is really “passed” – it is unrecoverable.

Yet the prayer remains “true” as wisdom. “God,” said theologian Henry Slonimsky (1884-1970), “is the Friend we suppose to exist behind the phenomena.” Behind the phenomena, note! Beyond what science studies. God is, alternatively, a “power making for righteousness,” according to Matthew Arnold, whom Slonimsky liked to cite, and who influenced Mordecai Kaplan to define God as “the power that makes for salvation.”

Wisdom relies on proverb, poetry and metaphor: language that is evocative more than it is descriptive. That God should “hear our voice,” Slonimsky insisted, expresses “the demand of the human heart” that our voices of pain and aspiration deserve being heard.

“How tragically inadequate the response,” he conceded, knowing full well that prayers may not be “answered.” But nonetheless, “we are so convinced of their utter righteousness, we will not take no for an answer.”

Here lies the wisdom of the High Holidays: the insistent cry of the human spirit. We are not so constructed as to be slavishly accepting of anything less than what this spirit instinctively demands: righteousness and justice, truth and goodness; we will fight to the end that these may prevail.

That same human spirit, however, is part and parcel of the universe, part of evolution itself, as if something about the universe is supportive of the spirit’s insistence. That “something” is the “Friend behind the phenomena” in Slonimsky’s words, the “power making for righteousness” for Matthew Arnold: what we normally call God.

The seemingly endless praying on these Days of Awe add up to more than the meaning of any given prayer. The experience as a whole reaffirms not just what God wants from us but what we demand of God: Yes, “righteousness” above all! Yes, “justice” and “truth” too. The human heart is certain of these certainties. It is our very nature to live with purpose derived from the promise that these will triumph.

We acknowledge (“knowledge,” that is) that our trials and tribulations may persist even after the prayers are over. But the wisdom of prayer is no less certain. Our lives are not for naught; we are part of something greater than whatever it is that pains us. We have a voice that demands being “heard”; and yes, we can feel ourselves renewed “as of old.”