Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gathering our Stories for Seder Night

The Hagaddah teaches that no matter how knowledgeable the person, “one who prolongs the telling of the story of the Exodus [on seder night], behold this is praiseworthy.”

Rav Zadok HaCohen of Lublin asks a question about this passage: how long can the telling go on? All we have are the passages themselves in the Torah and the midrash. Once we’ve recounted them, what else is there?

He answers that each one of us should innovate a new angle to the Exodus story. Without bringing our unique insights and praises into to the story, it remains incomplete.

It seems to me that can happen when, in the words of the Rambam, every person experiences him or herself as personally coming out of Egypt. This pertains not only to imagining and recreating the historical Exodus, but being deeply in contact with our own personal Egypt, the narrow places that constrict our lives and our consciousness, and the ideal vision of how we want to live our lives.

In this way the seder table becomes not a re-telling, but an actual experience of personal redemption. By sharing the places in our lives where we are stuck, along with all the kindness that Hashem bestows upon us, the seder night becomes alive with the spirit of redemption, and can propel us towards the ideal vision of who we want to become.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Embracing the Clarity of Hindsight

“Please show me Your Presence,” Moshe asks Hashem on Mt Sinai after Israel has been forgiven for the sin of the golden calf.

“I cannot, since no one can see my face and live,” Hashem answers. “I will put you in a cleft in the rock…you will see my back, but my face cannot be seen” (Shemot 33, 18-23).

Much has been written about this dialogue between Hashem and Moshe; what is Moshe asking for, and what is Hashem’s answer?

Rav Mordechai Yosef, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, offers a deep explanation. When Hashem’s presence passed over Moshe, he saw all that happened in the past through God’s perspective. Even the most theologically problematic matters, i.e., the existence of evil, disease, etc., were all revealed to Moshe. This is Hashem’s back.

But what Hashem could not show Moshe was the future, i.e. Hashem’s face. That is something no one can see. Hashem’s providence can only be fully understood in retrospect. Especially in light of the great numbers of tragedies that Israel has undergone, Hashem cannot be understood in the now. Only through the passage of time, when we reach a point of greater clarity, can we see the present in its proper context.

Hashem’s Presence may be hidden in the now, but the faith that carries us is the knowledge that in the future we will see clearly how Hashem was guiding us the whole time.

Dedicated to the complete healing of my dear friend Eliezer Chaim ben Zelda Tzipora.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Broken Tablets and Believing in Hashem’s Faith

Imagine the following scene: Moshe ben Avraham is called up for an aliyah to the Torah on Shabbat morning. He says his blessing, and the reader begins to chant the text. The shul is packed, and immediately everyone starts schmoozing, even though the rabbi has already asked them several times to keep quiet.

Suddenly the reader grabs the scroll, lifts it over his head, and hurls it towards the floor; wood shatters and flies into the air, and the parchment unfurls almost out the door. Everyone is in shock.

“Yashar Koach,” says the rabbi as he stands up from his chair on the dais, and starts clapping his hands. The congregation is quiet.

Even someone with the lowest level of religious sensitivity could never throw down a Torah scroll. Yet as Moshe descends from Mt. Sinai with the tablets in his hands, his reaction to Israel’s worshiping a golden calf is to smash the Torah. Equally shocking, as the midrash paints it, Hashem says, “Yasher Koach that you broke them (the tablets).”

Rav Zadok HaCohen (Tzidkat HaTzadik 154) attempts to make sense of Moshe’s severe reaction. Moshe understood the magnitude of the nation’s transgression, and knew the repercussions would be great. Indeed, Hashem suggests to Moshe that Hashem will wipe out the nation and begin afresh with him. “Blot me out of your book,” Moshe replies. Moshe refuses to give up on Israel.

Says Rav Zadok, this is why Moshe broke the tablets: he needed to do an act of equal atrocity, so that he too would be on the same level as the nation. What more dreadful act could there be then breaking the tablets carved out by Hashem?

“Yasher Koach,” Hashem replies. Moshe threw his lot in with the people based on his belief in himself and in the nation. Forgiveness could be Hashem’s only appropriate response. The message that Rav Zadok draws out from this difficult story: one not only needs to believe in Hashem, but one also needs to believe that Hashem believes in us also. Despite our flaws and missteps we are still endowed with a divine aspect of Hashem, and are always connected to our Creator.