Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

The Mishnah (Pesahim 116a) states that the discussion of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder must “begin with disgrace(גנות) and end with glory(שבח).” The exact understanding of this “disgrace” is the subject of a debate between Rav and Shmuel, with Rav saying that the requirement to start with disgrace is fulfilled by reciting a verses from Sefer Yehoshua (24:2-4) detailing how Bnei Yisrael are descended from idolaters like Terah before they ever went down to Egypt, and Shmuel saying that it is fulfilled by reciting a verse from Sefer Devarim (6:21, 5:15) discussing how Bnei Yisrael were slaves to Paroah in Egypt before ‘א redeemed them.

In the liturgy of our Haggadah we include both passages, making sure we have all of the disgrace covered[1]. This “disgrace to glory” structure dictates the nature of the story of the Exodus from Egypt that is discussed at the seder, ensuring that we cover the full story of ‘א rescuing Bnei Yisrael. This narrative makes it clear just what depths he pulled them out of, whether the spiritual depths of the post-Bavel depths of Bereishit 11 or the physical degradation of the slavery in Egypt. Against the background of this “disgrace” it becomes clear just how great the redemption from Egypt was.

However, the “disgrace to glory(שבח)” structure does more than just give the necessary limits of the recounting of the Exodus. Thanks to the multiplicity of meanings of the word “שבח,” it also creates the basic structure of Magid, the “retelling” portion of the seder. Maggie starts with calls for anyone who even now is in a state of “disgrace” to come and join our table. Then through the retelling of the redemption we pass through the glory of ‘א’s deeds to the point where we burst forth with joyous praise(שבח) of  ‘א with the beginning of Hallel (which we return to after the meal). Thus the experience of fulfilling the seder takes a person from one end to the other of the mishnaic dictum to “begin with disgrace and end with praise(שבח).”

The continuation of the Mishna tells us that out to expound upon the verse, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Devarim 26:5), and in fact a large portion of Magid is dedicated to midrashic exegeses of that whole passage from Devarim (26:5-11). What makes this passage an interesting choice is that it is not itself a passage from the Exodus story. If the goal of the seder, and Magid in particular, is to recount the story of the Exodus, the it would seem more logical to choose a passage from the first half of Sefer Shemot where the Exodus is actually narrated by the Torah. Certainly there is no lack of passages from the Exodus that simply cry out for exposition. Instead, the Mishna says we just delve into the passage recited by a farmer upon bringing the Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the temple. Upon bringing the fruits, the farmer recites a length retelling of the history of Bnei Yisrael from Avraham through the Exodus to their arrival from Egypt into the fruitful land of Canaan. By picking this passage the Haggadah directs our attention not to the Exodus but to the recounting of it.

While this at first glance seems strange, it finds a strong resonance within the other passages of Magid. The passages that Rav and Shmuel each chose are not from Bereishit 11 or from the slavery of Sefer Shemot, but from Yeshoshua’s discussion of Terah and Sefer Devarim’s  to tell your son that we were slaves to Paroah. Thus Rav and Shmuel are also focusing not on retelling the Exodus but on retelling the Retelling of the Exodus. Many of the other passages of Magid are even more explicit in this focus on “retelling the retelling.” In Magid we recount the story of the sages who stayed up all night talking about the Exodus, we discuss the debate between R’ Zoma and the Sages about when you have an obligation to talk about the Exodus, and we talk about the exegesis of the sages regarding how the plagues add up. The passages in which we retell the retelling of the Exodus story are a huge portion of the liturgy of Magid, almost outweighing the passages where we simply retell the story of the Exodus. In speaking these passages we affirm our place in a chain of speakers, in the line of “retellers” going all the way back to first generation out of Egypt.

This chain of speakers itself participates in the narrative of Yetsiat Metsrayim, in the journey from disgrace to glory and praise. In speaking the words of the seder we place ourselves in a chain that stretches back to the Exodus itself, a line of people who have experienced and told of ‘א glorious redemption, from generation to generation, heading to a time when the whole world will sing out in praise of ‘א.

[1] It is possible that the halakhah was decided like Rav and we just have both passages anyway. For more on that, see here.

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Purim 5775 – Purim of Days to Come: A Derashah

This was an attempt to write more in the style of a Hasidic Derashah, and as part of the more associative style of the genre, the ideas and sources sort of flow one into the next. Getting caught up in that, I think the piece got away from me a little bit and is a little more postmodern than I had in mind, but I still think it’s worth sharing. An English translation follows the original Hebrew.

״וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת יְ-הוָה כִּי כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְטַנָּם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם יְהוָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר עוֹד״ (ירמיהו לא:לג). זה פורים, שנאמר ״וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת, אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ״ (אסתר ט:יט). פורים הוא חג של אחרית הימים, כמו שכתוב, ״שכל המועדים עתידים בטלים, וימי הפורים אינם בטלים לעולם, שנאמר (אסתר ט כח): “וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים״ (מדרש משלי ט:א), שנאמר, ״לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה״ (אסתר ח:טז) זאת אורה שנגנז לצדיקים לעתיד לבוא (בר״ר יא:ב, חגיגה יב.), שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו בו. שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו שאין לומר דעו את י-הוה, כי כולם יודעים את י-הוה. אין ללמד, כי בלימוד יש מורה ותלמיד, יודע ואינו-יודע, וכולנו ידעו לכן לא שייך הכפייתיות של לימוד. אבל יש שליחת מנות, שבו אין מורה ותלמיד אלא איש ורעהו, ואין חטאתם הקודמים אלא ידיעת י-הוה. בפורים אנו בדרגה של האדם לפני חטא עץ הדעת, כמו שכתוב, ״עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי״ (מגילה ז:), ואין מקולל או מבורך אלא יודעי י-הוה. בפורים רואים באור ששת ימי בראשית, לפני שהנחש לימד את האדם לחטוא, לפני שבחרנו לדעת טוב ורע במקום לדעת את י-הוה.

“And no more shall every man teach his friend, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know ‘א’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says ‘א; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more ” (Yirmiyahu 31:33). This is a reference to Purim, as it is said, “And sending portions, each man to his friend” (Esther 9:19). Purim is the festival of the End of Days, as it is written, “For all of the holidays with be nullified in the future, but the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it is said, ‘and these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews’ (Esther 9:28).” (Midrash Mishlei 9:1), as it is said, “The Jew had light” (Esther 8:16), this is the light that was hidden for the Righteous of the future (Bereishit Rabbah 11:2, Bavli Hagiga 12a), that in the future everyone will see with. In the future, everyone will see that we shouldn’t say, “Know ‘א,” for everyone will know ‘א. We should not teach, because teaching requires a teacher and a student, now who knows and one who does not, and everyone will know. Therefore the imposition of teaching is irrelevant. However, one should send portions, for in this there is no “teacher” and “student,” just each man and his friend, and there is no previous sin, only the Knowledge of ‘א.  On Purim we are on the level of Man before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, as it is written, “until you do not know [how to differentiate] between ‘Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Bavli Megillah 7b), so there is no “cursed” or “blessed”, only knowers of ‘א. On Purim we see with the light of the six days of Creation, before the snake taught Man to sin, before we chose knowing good and evil over knowing ‘א.

Hanukah And The Other

Hanukah And The Other

While the holiday of Hanukah is perhaps the most popular of the jewish holidays among American Jewry (by which I mean to include even the non-Orthodox), it was not always so. Hazal seem to have had a rather ambivalent approach to Hanukah. This is in large part manifest in a general lack of discussion about the holiday. Hanukah is mentioned a total of three times in the entirety of the Mishnah, and while the gemara discusses it somewhat more often, it is still scarce. There is also a notable lack of a ‘Masekhet Hanukah,” while Purim, the other non-biblical holiday, does have its own masekhet. Further ambivalence can be seen in the way Hazal related to the Hashmonaim, the heroes of the Hanukah story. Hazel critiqued the Hashmonaim on a number of issues, such as the unification of the Priesthood and the Kingship, but also for things like the way they wrote contracts. Moreover, the Hashmonaim often took license in their war against the Mityavnim, the Hellenized Jews, from the biblical zealot Pinhas. In midrashic explications of the story of Pinhas, Hazal often criticize Pinhas, or make it clear that his actions were less than desirable. Thus the Hashmonaim were basing themselves off a zealotry that Hazal were already less than thrilled about, even without the problems of the kingship. The largest question this raises, though there are several, is why did Hazal then see fit to include Hanukah in the holidays of the Jewish People? Megillat Ta’anit records a long list of second temple holidays and fast days and the only two that we keep are Purim and Hanukah. Thus the question of why we celebrate Hanukah when it was not particularly popular in Hazal, needs an answer.

Hanukah has only one mitsvah, lighting the candles, and it is through this mitsvah that we can perhaps explain the significance of the inclusion of Hanukah among the Jewish Holidays. In order to properly understand the mitsvah of lighting candles for Hanukah, it is instructive to compare them with another mitsvah of candle-lighting, the candles of Shabbat. Like the candles of Hanukah, the Shabbat candles are a rabbinic command. However, where the Hanukah candles are commemorative in nature, the Shabbat candles are functional. The candles of Shabbat ensure the existence of three specific aspects of Shabbat: Respectfulness (כבוד), Enjoyment (עונג), and Harmony in the house (שלום בית). The candles are there to ensure that there is enough light to see by, whether during meals or just when walking around. The functional nature of the Shabbat candles has halakhic ramifications. If a person is away from home and staying in a place where they have their own room, then she has an obligation to ensure that it is lit well enough to see where they are going. That said, if there is a place where the person does not want the light, such as a bedroom, then there is no obligation to light there. The Shabbat candles are there for the benefit of the people in the house, not as a goal in and of themselves.

The candles of Hanukah are just the opposite. As opposed to the raw functionality of the Shabbat candles, “these candles are holy, and we have no permission to use them beyond looking at them.” Where the whole purpose of the Shabbat candles is for our use, we are forbidden to make any use of the Hanukah candles. They are holy, and they burn just to burn. Moreover, the one purpose they might seem to have, publicizing the miracle of Hanukah, is intended in an opposite manner from the purpose of the Shabbat candle. The Shabbat candles are intended to illuminate the house for the benefit of the people inside it. The publication of the miracle of Hanukah is primarily intended not for the people in the house but for the people outside of it, to the point where the ideal placement of the chanukiah is not inside the house at all, but rather just outside the door. The Hanukah candles are not about those lighting them, nor about improving their lives. Whereas the Shabbat candles increase and improve our sense of comfort and homeyness, the Hanukah candles create a sense of estrangement and otherness.

The Hanukah candles represent a celebration of otherness, of the fact that not everything needs to fit into our lives and our patterns in order for it to be included, and this is exactly what is  happening with the inclusion of Hanukah in the system of Jewish Holidays. Hazal took a holiday that they would not necessarily have created on their own, and brought it within the system of Jewish Holidays, and then they made sure it’s main ritual would demonstrate what they had done. Their willingness to accept that which is other, that which doesn’t work exactly as they would have it, ought to be an inspiration for us. They didn’t pretend to agree with everything about Hanukah. Before Hazal emphasized the miracle of the oil, all versions of the Hanukah story focus on the military victory or the rededication of the Temple. Hazal decided the focus should be on the miracle of the oil, something they felt more befitting of non-Hashmonaic Judaism. We don’t have to agree with everyone, nor do we even have to pretend to. But that isn’t permission to exclude them and push them away. In light of the otherness of the Hanukah candles, with which we celebrate the grace and presence of ‘א, we can embrace those who are different.

Sukkot 5775 – Getting Out Of Our Narratives

כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

The mitsvah to dwell in sukkot for seven days comes Vayikra 23:42, part of the greater description of the holiday of Sukkot in verses 33-43, probably the largest description of Sukkot in the Torah. It’s also the only such description that includes a reason for the mitsvah to dwell in sukkot. “In order that your generations will know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael are commanded to dwell in sukkot in order to mimic and recreate the experience of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. This experience that is characterized mainly by two trends, Bnei Yisrael complaining about not suffering due to their not being in Egypt any more, and ‘א providing Bnei Yisrael with sustenance throughout their journeys in the wilderness.

Throughout their travels in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly complain that they wish they could return to Egypt, or that things were better in Egypt. The first time is just after the splitting of the sea. “If only we had died by the hand of ‘א in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we ate bread to satiation; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly through starvation” (Shemot 16:3). This is the first of many times such a complaint occurs due to a lack of food or water. A totally different motivation for such a complaint appears in Bamidbar 16, in the rebellion of Dathan and Aviram. “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:13). This complaint is not about a lack of food, but about Moshe being unsuitable as a leader. They go so far as to call Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase otherwise only used to refer to the Land of Israel. Seeing as their experience in Egypt was one of crushing labor and abject slavery, it is difficult to understand why they would desire so strongly to go back to it. However, this becomes a little clearer when understood in light of the post-modern concept of a narrative.

The word “narrative” refers to a story, but in the post-modern sense it refers more particularly to the stories by which people define their lives. These stories give a context within which the events and occurrences of their lives can be understood. It gives people a framework within which to choose what course of action they should pursue. The historical perspective of Tanakh, from the beginning of Creation in Sefer Bereishit to the messianic visions of the prophets, is a narrative within which Bnei Yisrael understand the meaning of the events that happen to them. This is perhaps the greatest function of the prophets, telling Bnei Yisrael that the major events they undergo, such as the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, are not random event, but are part of a larger story and make sense when viewed as such. One of the most notable effects of the loss of prophecy has been a disconnect from Tanakh’s historical narrative. Without a prophet, Bnei Yisrael had no way of knowing with certainty the significance of any occurrence, but can only try and fit it into the context of Tanakh’s historical vision.

Returning to Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness, their complaints about no longer being in Egypt can be understood in terms of a loss of narrative. In Egypt, they knew what story they were participating in, even if it was an unpleasant one. They knew who was in charge and why, they knew where their food and water came from, and they knew what they were supposed to do when. Then ‘א took them out of Egypt, and they knew none of those things. When they didn’t have food, they complained that they once knew where their food came from, and when they felt they had been lead badly, they challenged the source of the authority of their leader. They had lost their Egypt-Narrative and until they would enter the Land of Israel, they were a little lost.

The second typifier of Bnei Yisrael’s wilderness experience was that they were totally sustained by ‘א. When they needed food, he gave them Manna (Shemot 16:4-5) and Quail (Shemot 16:12-15). Their leadership was sent by ‘א, and when they doubted this, they were reminded via miracles (Bamidbar 16:28; 17:16-26). Their garments were miraculously sustained by ‘א, neither wearing out nor being outgrown (Devarim 8:4). Even their living-spaces were given to them by ‘א (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael’s entire wilderness experience was defined by the way they lived their lives cradled in the hand of ‘א.

On sukkot Bnei Yisrael were thrust out of our normal, everyday, narratives and pushed into the wilderness. Every year, as they were gathering in their harvest (Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:13), Bnei Yisrael were reminded that they do not survive by their produce alone, but by the word of ‘א (Devarim 8:3). Sukkot is a week where we step out of our normal stories, our routines and procedures, and remember the truth that these stories obscure, that we are not independent, that our stories are conditional and dependent, that the lives we build were built with the power that ‘א gives us (Devarim 8:17-18).

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

[2] While they received the Torah long before they entered the Land of Israel, many if not most of the mitsvot apply only when in the Land of Israel (never mind the opinion of Ramban that the mitsvot only apply inside the Land of Israel). Receiving the Torah did help Bnei Yisrael’s mindset somewhat, but that is part of a different discussion.

[3] The exact nature of the “sukkot” that ‘א caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in is subject to Rabbinic debate, with R’ Eliezer understanding them as booths such as Bnei Yisrael build today, and with R’ Akiva understanding them as the Clouds of Glory. For an excellent discussion of how R’ Akiva’s view fits with peshat, and of the symbolism behind both views, see this essay by R’ Prof. Jeffrey L. Rubinstein.