"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Monday, March 29, 2010

Being The Redeamed and The Redeamer

The four questions that the child asks his parents are our gateway into the quest for the wondrous experience that lays ahead of us tonight. We are about to step into an adventure which will allow us to relive the transformation of our ancestors from slaves to free men. The way by which the Torah as well as our Rabbis formulate this goal is that every father must teach his child the story of the exodus. This experience is prompted by the child’s questions which lead to the teaching of the miraculous story.

This requirement of question and answer is a unique element that the seder night has which differentiates it from all other educational mitzvot that we have over the year. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, commonly know as the Kedushas Levi, the name of his monumental work of Chassidic thought, explains that the reason for this is that something phenomenal happens when a parent and a child enter into a dialogue. If one were to examine such a conversation from a distance, it would seem absolutely ludicrous. Why would an intellectually mature individual take his time to speak with another individual of much lesser intelligence and understanding? He should focus his mental faculties on pursuits which befit his own level. The Kedushas Levi therefore explains that when a father teaches his child or a teacher his student they are forced to take their own intellectual self and diminish it. They do not speak to them as an equal, rather they must use language, tones, metaphors and gestures which will all appeal to the mind of the child. This is what happens in such a pedagogical dialogue; it is not a conversation of equals. It necessitates one greater, more advanced individual to lessen his own mind for the sake of being able to properly relate to his pupil.

Why is there a specific need for this phenomenon on the night of the Pesach Seder? According to some Halachic authorities the mitzva of the telling over of the story of the exodus is fulfilled in the greatest way when a father teaches a child who has the most minimal intelligence. How does this contribute to our personal experience of leaving Egypt? To this the Kedushas Levi responds that when the father answers his sons questions and achieves this educational dialogue he is doing precisely what The Master of the World did for the Jewish people in the exodus from Egpyt. Just as the father goes down to the level of his son out of pure, absolute love and devotion in order to respond to him so too did Hashem come down by HimSelf in order to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt. The lower the father has to stoop to answer questions and clarify difficulties, the more he relives the exodus. In order to redeem our ancestors our Father in Heaven went down to the lowliest and most disgusting promiscuous, idolatrous and impure place in the world, Mitzrayim. It is utterly illogical for such a thing to happen. The Baal HaTanya asks, why would an exalted, pure infinite G-D lower HimSelf in such a way? Nothing besides absolute love and devotion can explain such a phenomenon.

Our total experience of the exodus of Egypt requires us to relive not only the receiving side of the salvation and redemption but also the side of the bestowing and giving: Hashem. This is the relationship between the teller of the story of yetziat Mitzrayim and the hearer of the story. The truth of the matter is that within every Jew, young or old, educated or less so, spiritually aware or less so, there lays both elements. Every Jew is a child, the hearer of the story, the recipient of the miraculous deliverance from slavery and bondage. But at the same time we also have a piece of G-D within us, we have the power to tell the story, to be redeemers and saviors in our own rights.

To conclude, the halachah, Jewish law, requires a Jew who may unfortunately sit at his Seder by himself to ask himself the questions and respond to himself. This too fits in precisely with our understanding. For in a sense we all oftentimes find ourselves quite lonely, down and unproductive; our own personal feeling of exile and servitude. The halachah demands of us to tell ourselves the story. Not only to be the needers and recipients of the salvation, but to also be completely aware that we can be the parent and the teacher; we can be bestowers of the redemption as well, most importantly to ourselves.

One final FNQ seder thought

I saw this idea in the Haggadah entitled, "Exalted evening" which is a compilation of the ideas of Rav Soloveitchik on the seder night.  After reading it I couldn't resist sharing since it is so relevant to some of the thoughts I have written since starting this blog.

On page 28-29 of the the Haggadah in the final paragraph on the page the Rav writes (it is written in his name). "The form of narration in the Haggadah avails itself of dialogue: one person asks and another responds.  It is necessary to dramatize this narration because G-d reveals himself to man if and when the latter searches for him.  If one does not inquire, if one expects God will reveal Himself without making an all-out effort to find Him, one will never meet G-d.  "But from there you will seek the lord and you shall find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and all you soul" (Deut 4:29).
   Nachmanidies, in his comments on the verse "His habitation you shall seek and there you shall come" (Deut 12:5), says: "You should come to Me from distant lands, and you should keep inquiring where is the road leading to G-d's habitation."  The searching for the sanctuary, the curiosity to know the location of the sanctuary, is itself redeeming and sanctifying!  The curiosity hallows the pilgrimage and makes it meaningful.  If one does not search for G-d, if a Jew does not keep in mind where is the road leading to the Temple, the he or she will never find the temple.
    On the first night of Pesach, we tell the story of a long search by man for G-d, of G-d responding to the inquisitive search, of G-d taking man, who longs for him into His embrace.  At the Seder, we try to stimulate the naive curiosity of the children and thereby make them G-d searchers.  The quest for G-d, along with the acceptance of the commandments, is the true spiritual liberation."

We should be zocheh to be true searchers and begin our search tonight.  

what do you think?

Binyamin - always looking for a good question 

Friday, March 26, 2010

The freedom of being slaves to G-d

FNQ – holiday special
  1. It says in the hagadah “had G-d not taken us out then, we would still be slaves to Pharoah in Egypt”. Since the literal meaning of the statement is kind of hard to relate to (I cant imagine we wouldn't have revolted at some point) what is the idea behind this puzzling declaration?
  2. Why is it that our night of freedom is full of rules that seem to be more restrictive than freeing?
Imprisoned in the chains of the finite and temporary existence of a physical world we are all slaves to something. Some are slaves to their work, others to their desire for money, others to desire for sex and others to the whims of pop culture and western pseudo morality. There is only one form of slavery which has a component of freedom, being a slave to G-d. I will try to explain this obvious paradox.

It is a principle of the Jewish faith that man has free choice. This is the most basic expression of freedom and it is what separates man from the others living beings with whom we share planet Earth. But to invoke this power and maximize its potential is not as simple as one may think. Often we think that a choice is ours when in reality the choice is made by something other than us. It is made by our base physical desires, or by our boss or by our bank account. Such choices are anything but free. A choice is your own only when it is free from these shackles.

Make no mistake the freedom of Pesach does not mean that we are celebrating having no master. We have a master and we remain slaves. What took place on Pesach long ago and what we celebrate each year is the opportunity to becomes slaves to something higher than the impulses of human desire. On Pesach we became slaves G-d and thus we have the potential for true freedom.

With this in mind I think I can answer my two questions. The line in the haggada that states had G-d not taken us out we would still be slaves to Pharoah is not literal. In all likelihood the nation of Hebrews would have, one way or another, found a way to escape from their slavery in Egypt. But only in the physical sense. In the spiritual sense we would still be slaves to a culture that worships the body and deifies all that gives pleasure. If G-d had not taken us out we would still be slaves.

This is also the meaning of a line we say every night in maariv. We say that G-d took us out of Egypt for eternal freedom. Clearly this line isn't referring to physical freedom because the the Jewish nation has been slaves to many a master since we left Egypt. It is clear that in this prayer we are thanking G-d for the ability to be spiritually free. The ability to transcend the material and carnal and answer to something higher.

Perhaps this is why there are so many rules and details in the seder. Had we simply marked the moment of our Exodus from Egypt with a big gluttonous meal we might mistakenly think that in leaving Egypt we entered into a chaotic existence with no rules. We celebrate our freedom by affirming our commitment to G-d in conforming to every last detail of His Divine commands. The night of the seder (which means order) is the ultimate expression of our newfound control whereby we become the masters over physicality and the temporal fleeting state of being human.

We are all slaves to something, on Pesach we have the chance to free ourselves from all bondage but one. At the seder we become slaves to G-d.

Chag Sameach

What do you think?

Binyamin – always looking for a good question.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Using grape juice for the four cups

FNQ - holiday special

Though it may be preferable, there is no obligation for everyone present to drink from the wine over which kiddush is made on a regular shabbos or yom tov. For this reason those who don't enjoy drinking grape derivatives can fulfill their obligation of kiddush while avoiding the need to drink a beverage they don't enjoy. However, the night of the seder is unique in that each person is obligated to drink 4 cups of wine as part of the seder to fulfill a the rabbinic mitzvah of daled kosot (4 cups of wine). The question that I would like to address in this post is whether an alco-phobe can fulfill his or her obligation using grape juice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

So that the children will ask

FNQ – Pesach Special

The seder is an educational masterpiece. Throughout the year there is a commandment to teach our children Torah and guide them in the ways of our ancient traditions; but on the seder night there is a unique obligation to tell our children about the Exodus from Egypt. The key to a good story is breathing life into past events. If you simply retell facts and dry information you can be sure that the listener will find a more interesting way to keep themselves occupied. To ensure that the Exodus would be brought to life the Rabbis came up with a perfect balance of experiential and intellectual stimulation. The experiential aspects of eating maror and matzah to taste the burn of slavery and glory of redemption are well documented. In this post I would like to focus on what I believe is the most basic and essential of the intellectual tools used to spur the interest of our children in the seder experience. Namely, questions.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Shabbos Hagadol – What's the big idea

FNQ – Special for Pesach

Shabbos Hagadol is one of the many things we do every year and probably never stop to ask what makes this shabbos any greater/bigger than any other shabbos. In my limited research I discovered five different explanations for the name shabbos hagadol and what it is that makes this shabbos is unique. I have no doubt that there are additional reasons given but here is what I found. If you know of other explanations please share them. The sources for these can be found on this source sheet.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Share a pesach question

FNQ Special

As I mentioned in the last post the seder is FNQ's favorite Jewish ritual.  It's the night where the question takes the center stage and you get candies for a good question and not a good answer.   In an attempt to prepare for the night of question I was thinking it would be great if people would share some of their favorite Pesach or seder related questions.  Feel free to give an answer as well but remember you only get a candy for the questions. 

Binyamin - always looking for a good question.

Pesach Questions

FNQ 5 q's for the week

Pesach is FNQ's favorite holiday and the seder is without a doubt our favorite night. The seder experience is all about using questions to pique the interest and curiosity of the participants. For this week's installment I would like to pose 5 questions on various as aspects of Pesach and the seder. It is my plan (if I am blessed with the time) to try and answer all of the these questions in the upcoming week. Check back throughout the week for my answers.  As always, I look forward to hearing yours as well.

  1. The upcoming shabbos is entitled Shabbat Hagadol. What's so big/great about it?

  2. We have many strange customs at the seder whose goal is so that the children (and adults) will ask. Why is it that there seems to be no answers to their questions?

  3. It says in the hagadah “had G-d not taken us out then, we would still be slaves in Egypt”. Since the litereal meaning of the statement is kind of hard to relate to (I cant imagine we wouldn't have revolted at some point) what is the idea behind this puzzling declaration?

  4. If I don't like wine can I use grape juice for the 4 cups?

  5. Why is it that our night of freedom is full of rules that seem to be more restrictive than freeing?
What do you think?

Binyamin – always looking for a good question

Thursday, March 18, 2010

To be as free as Adam

FNQ – Parsha thought

Many commentators deal with a word in the very beginning of Parshas VaYikra that presents some difficulty. “...Adam ki yakriv mikem korban la’Shem....” (When a man among you brings a sacrifice to Hashem). The word “Adam” seems to be superfluous; is it not obvious that the verse is addressing humans? However, as conditioned explorers of the Torah we know that its depth is infinite and even one dot is not extraneous, let alone an entire word. What is the reason for this word Adam?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to know if we are headed for the slope

FNQ – thought for the week

From the time prophecy was no longer available Jewish leaders have been struggling to determine which innovations would lead to greater Torah commitment and which innovations would weaken our bond to G-d and His law. It is my opinion that even the greatest of our Rabbinic sages were forced to use a cost benefit analysis before instituting a change in the absence of direct Divine guidance. Without prophecy no one can see the future and predict the impact that a new idea will have. In this post I would like to share some thoughts of mine concerning slippery slopes and how they can be avoided.

To begin the discussion we need to refer back to our Wikipedia definition. A slippery slope is: “A chain of events that, once initiated, cannot be halted; especially one in which the final outcome is undesirable or precarious.” In Judaism it is fairly simple to identify which outcomes are considered undesirable. Any innovation which will lead to transgression of halacha is unacceptable. I think most of the time when Jewish leaders refer to an idea as being a slippery slope what they mean is that although the idea itself accords with halacha it will eventually lead to another idea that will violate halacha (the chain could be a little longer). It is important to note that if the innovation itself veers from Jewish law that isn't a slippery slope that is already sliding to the bottom.

Ideally we could test innovations and give them a trial period before accepting them completely. Perhaps in certain circumstances this is possible and should even be done. However, there are situations where the trial itself may be the first step down the slope. In these cases the fear is that a even after repealing an innovation its impact on the Jewish people may be irreversible. I believe this issue is especially true today when it is virtually impossible to keep an idea contained. A new innovation becomes widely known immediately and to fully reverse it is hopeless. This is perhaps one of the reasons why fear of change is especially prevalent in today's global shtetel.

I thought of a few criteria which may be factors in determining whether an idea is headed for a slippery slope.

Monday, March 15, 2010

New Shiur: The mysterious book discovery, and unique Pesach of Yoshiyahu

In this latest installment in my series entitled, "controversial stories in tanach", I addressed the following issues. 

(links to other shiurim in this series can be found in the sidebar under my shiurim and shiur source sheets)

Shiur link
Source sheet link

What was so exciting about discovering the mysterious scrolls?

Is it possible that the Torah was lost for a period of almost 75 years?

What was unique about the Pesach celebration in the times of Yoshiahu?

What is the connection between cleaning the Beit Hamikdash from idols and cleaning our homes from chametz?

The appears the the Book of Kings 2 Chapters 22,23

Binyamin - always looking for a good question

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Slippery Slope

FNQ - 5 q's for the week
In my post last week about Female Orthodox Rabbis I referenced the argument oft used to forbid innovations known as the 'slippery slope'. Contrary to popular belief this idiom was not invented by Orthodox Rabbis as an explanation for prohibiting a myriad of contemporary creations. In fact a definition for the phrase slippery slope appears on Wikipedia. It is as follows: “A chain of events that, once initiated, cannot be halted; especially one in which the final outcome is undesirable or precarious.” The problem with catchy phrases like this one is that they often replace cogent, clearly formulated ideas with vague words whose meaning is presumed though rarely understood. This leads to a lot of confusion and inevitably arguments will be made that are either misunderstood or contain no substance at all. Here are 5 questions on the concept of a slippery slope. Come back Tuesday for a thought on this topic.

Friday, March 12, 2010

FNQ Parsha Thought - VaYakhel Pekudei/HaChodesh

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was known for drawing incredibly valuable lessons simply from the names of the Parshiyos alone (see the introduction to the excellent Gutnick Chumash). He raised a difficulty with the coupling of the two names VaYakhel and Pekudei as being a contradiction; the first being a description of bringing together disparate parts in order to form a kehilla and the second being a description of counting or pointing out individual elements, each as his own unique entity. One can see the Rebbes wonderful explanation of this issue in the Gutnick Chumash, or even better go straight to Likkutei Sichos. Please allow me to present a mehalech.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

To build a house for G-d: It doesn't get any better

FNQ Parsha Thought

Much ink has been spilled and kilobytes of memory consumed in an attempt to understand why the Torah describes the building of the Mishkan at such incredible length.  There are a few things that are troubling, including, the repetition (twice in full), the intricate details, and perhaps most perplexing, the measurements given for the Mishkan will never even be used again since the Beit Hamikdash, destined to be built in Jerusalem, has its own measurements that are not based on what is recorded in the parshiyot of Terumah, Tetzaveh, Vayakhel and Pekudai. Here is a thought on the puzzling matter of building the Mishkan.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Female Rabbis and filter systems

FNQ – thought for the week

In my previous post that can be accessed here, I posed five questions on the subject of female Orthodox Rabbis.  Here are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

Let me make it clear that I am all for innovation. My Judaism and Avodat Hashem have been enhanced by modern advancement both from within and without. However, while I may not be a believer in a sheltered lifestyle I am a proponent of a filtered lifestyle. Not every new idea should be embraced and not every western value has a place within the sacred walls of the collective Jewish home. Living a filtered life is the challenge that faces every Jew living in the modern world. Each and every individual is responsible for creating their personal filters and at the same time we must to look to our rabbinical leaders for guidance as to what  should be let in and what must remain outside. It is my opinion, that the position of a female Rabbi, Rabbah, Maharat or whatever it will be called must not be allowed to pass through the filter that safeguards Modern Orthodoxy.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Female Orthodox Rabbis

FNQ - 5 q's for the week
I don't know all the details but it appears that Rabbi Avi Weiss who recently gave a woman the title of Rabba (female Rabbi) has retracted. Women who finish his training program will once again receive the original acronym/title of Maharat (it means: female leader in the areas of halacha, spirituality and Torah). While reverting back to Maharat is perhaps a temporary bandaid to appease the mainstream Orthodox discomfort with Rabba,  the desire on the part of some to create a position entitled "female rabbi" remains unaddressed. I would like to pose 5 questions on the concept of female Orthodox Rabbis. These questions are not meant as an attack, yet I admit that I am asking them from a position of open skepticism. Come back on Tuesday for my thoughts on this topic and my answers to some of these questions.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Parshas Parah

FNQ Parsha Thought

The Mishna Berura (655:1) says that the reason why we read Parshas Parah the Shabbos before Parshas HaChodesh, that heralds Chodesh Nissan, is to commemorate the burning of the Parah Aduma.  The Parah Aduma is the essential ingredient in the water which serves to purify all of Klal Yisrael thereby enabling them to offer the Korban Pesach.  He concludes: “we read this Parsha as a prayer to Hashem that He will throw the pure waters upon us very soon.”

There is a well known conundrum that is taught in the Medrash Tanchuma (Chukas: 3) and stated slightly differently in the Gemara (Nidah 9a) regarding the Parah Aduma. In the process of showering the waters the impure individual as well as the pourer of the water would become pure; however, any other individual who would touch the very sane water or would be in any way involved in the process would become impure. This is perhaps the quintessential “chok” in the Torah.  It is a decree of Hashem and not meant to be fully understood by our limited intellect.  However, even though we are not meant to understand fully the reason for the Parah Adumah, we can and must still attempt to learn from it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Purim 5770

FNQ - thought for the week

Will I succeed this year in experiencing a Purim induced alcoholic high and thus merit entering the inner sanctum and Holy of Holiest which is buried deep inside of me (and inside each and every Jew)?

Another Purim has passed and I still am left unfilled in my goal to achieve the sublime heights of Purim seudah bliss. It wasn't from a lack of trying. In truth, it may be unrealistic to think that in my relatively small number of Purim celebrations (fifteen, since my Bar Mitvah), and even fewer times drinking on Purim (ten, from when I was in Yeshivat Hakotel), that I would reach the transcendent level that can be accessed only on Purim. The following is a short description of this year's attempt.