Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"What does this service mean to you?" - Rosh HaShanah 2nd day sermon, 2013



No one would ever think of simply not inviting him.

And to his credit, he always shows up, no matter how much complaining he may do once he has arrived.

I’m talking, of course, of one of the most important mythical personalities of the Jewish holiday cycle.  He loves to push our buttons. But you couldn’t imagine a Passover seder without him and his provocative questions.  And in fact, I am quite confident that he is here in the synagogue today -
and how we decide to relate to him will have a dramatic effect on the Jewish future.

I’m speaking, of course, of the רשע - the Wicked Son, one of the four sons described by the Passover Haggadah.

I know some of you are thinking:  is the rabbi confused?  I knew Rosh HaShanah is early this year, but is Passover also early this year?! Quite THIS early?!   (Actually, this is not the first time that I have discussed Passover during a Rosh haShanah sermon. Some of you may remember several years ago when shortly before Rosh HaShanah I was looking for a book in the library and inadvertently found a long-lost Afikoman.)

The wicked child, and his wise, simple and silent siblings, have been on my mind this summer because I taught a summer class to rabbinical students on the history of the Passover Seder.  First, the class reminded me that my desire to teach about the Passover seder so far exceeds the time constraints of the holiday of Passover.  But also, the way that Jewish tradition relates to the wicked child at the seder is a useful way to ask some questions about the Jewish community today on the brink of a new Jewish year.  We may have more to learn from the wicked child, and about the wicked child, than we may have previously thought -- including lessons that are directly applicable to today’s holiday of Rosh haShanah and the themes of teshuvah - repentance - on an individual and a communal level.

First, a little background.  How did these four paradigmatic children get invited to our Passover seder in the first place?  It all starts with questions.  As we all know, Jews have always loved questions, and the Torah is saturated with questions - especially questions from children to parents, expressing curiosity and wonder --the very first example of which in the torah was Isaac’s question to Abraham in our torah reading this morning.

Our sages noticed that the torah suggests that children will see their parents’ celebration of Pesach, as well as the full range of Jewish celebrations and observances, and it will prompt them to ask questions. And the sages imaged that the different questions that can be found in the torah would be asked by different types of children.  There is one question in the book of Deuteronomy that looks like a sophisticated and detail-oriented question - מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ א’ אתכם
What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that Adonai our God has commanded you?  And they imagined that that would be the question asked by a wise child. And one question in the book of Exodus seems very simple: ‘mah zot’  - what is this?  They assumed that this question would be asked by a the simple child.

And a passage in the book of exodus that appears to be  explanation that a parent gives a child even though no question has been asked --- this appears, they said, to have been directed to a child who does not know how to ask questions yet.

But the book of Exodus also includes a question that in its original context appears innocuous enough - מה העבודה הזאת לכם?  What does this service mean to you?  And our sages said: wow, that sounds like a question that a wicked child would ask.  And so - the wicked child at the seder was born.

The four children passage is included in the Passover Haggadah as an illustration of the principle:  לפי דעתו שלבן, אביו מלמדו.  A parent should instruct a child according to that child’s knowledge.  Or in other words, parenting, and education, is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise.   The way one responds to the simple child should be different from the way one responds to the wise child, which should be different from the way one responds to the wicked child.

But like mischievous children everywhere, the wicked child at the seder appears to command a disproportionate amount of the attention.  If someone likes, or dislikes, this part of the seder - it’s probably connected to how they feel about the idea of the wicked child. And when someone creates artwork about the 4 children for the haggadah, you can be sure that your eye will be drawn to the wicked child -- that’s the part of the illustration that will be the most interesting, the most revelatory about the artist.  Because the wicked child has been a traditional paradigm for how the Jewish people understands people who, for whatever reason, deviate from communal norms. And we tend to be fascinated by people who deviate from communal norms.
In some medieval haggadot, the wicked son is portrayed as a soldier. (see picture, Prague Haggadah, 1526)  In one American Haggadah from 1920, the wicked child is portrayed as a boxer.  Both of these were considered ways that Jews might rebel against the priorities of the Jewish community.  But most of all, the wicked child is presented as a person who is assimilated into the majority culture.  There’s a famous haggadah from Chicago in 1879 with an illustration of the whole family sitting together - an old-world Jewish father and mother,  traditionally dressed; a wise son, also dressed traditionally and wearing a kipah, and a wicked son who is dressed like an American, leaning back in his chair and smoking, disparagingly pointing his finger at his father, with an apparent disregard for these tired old world traditions. (Haggadah illustrations from A Different Night Haggadah)

So what’s so bad about the wicked child’s question?  he says:  מה העבודה הזאת לכם?  ‘What does this service mean to you?”  And the narrator of the Haggadah points out, what makes this question so provocative is that this child does not say ‘what does this service mean to US?”  rather:  הוציא את עצמו מן הכלל - he excludes himself from the collective, by saying ‘what does this service mean to you?”
and thus -- כפר בעיקר - he has transgressed a core principle of faith.

So according to the Haggadah, how should you respond to him?  ואף אתה הקהה את שיניו - you should set his teeth on edge.  (Which is a biblical metaphor for:  give him the sensation you get in your mouth when you eat something sour.  By the way: sometimes people translate this as ‘strike him in the teeth’ - but that is actually a mistranslation.   The response to this wicked child may be unpleasant, but it’s not physically abusive.)  And you should say to him:  אלו היה שם, לא היה נגאל., in effect;  tell him: if you had been enslaved in Egypt, we just would have left you there.

This is a season of teshuvah - of repentance - when we review and evaluate our relationships .  And the worldwide Jewish community has some teshuvah to do regarding its relationship with the so-called wicked child.

First:  we need to recognize that the wicked child’s question is an excellent question   - maybe even the very wisest of the questions asked at the seder.  Mah ha-avodah hazot lachem?  What does this service mean to you?  Historically we have heard this question as a distancing, a declaration of independence from the Jewish community. But look at the question again - and you’ll see a question about personal meaning. Just as many of those who may look like they are rebelling from the Jewish community are really inviting us to articulate to them why WE find Judaism to be compelling.

Mah ha-avodah hazot lachem?  What does this service mean to you?  Mom and Dad, don’t just tell me the details of what you are doing when you are doing something Jewish.  Give me a little window into your soul.  Tell me what it means TO YOU.

By treating the rasha’s question as we have historically treated it, we imply that this is the way that the Jewish community deals with challenge -- when nothing could be further from the truth!  Every chapter of the Talmud includes questions and challenges from the mouths of rabbis that are far far more provocative and obnoxious than ‘what does this service mean to you?”

But even worse --- treating the rasha’s question as we do -- lets us off the hook for answering it.
This child is asking specifically about the parents’ motivation towards the avodah - the work - the service - the potentially burdensome element of Jewish ritual.  Because if Judaism were all fun and games, if it never challenged you, never made you consider doing something that you would not have been inclined to do anyway, you wouldn’t need to ask ‘why should I do this?’  Because of course you would do it.  So what this child is asking is:  why do you care enough about being Jewish that you are willing to do things that are difficult, time-consuming, and counter-intuitive for the sake of your Jewish commitments?

Actually, when you think about it, this is a much better question than the question of the wicked child’s arch-rival, the wise child, who is simply asking for information:  “what are the testimonies, laws and statutes that God has commanded?”  The wise child asks for information; the wicked child is the only one who is asking about personal meaning.  And it behooves parents, and everyone else in the community, to figure out pretty good answers to this question:  What
does this service mean to me?

It’s a deeply personal question - and like most deeply personal questions, the answer is unlikely to be in the form of a rational argument.  It’s more likely to be in the form of a personal story.  What is my Jewish story that motivates the decisions that I make to make Judaism an important part of my life, even when it is challenging or inconvenient?

When I say parents have to have answers to this question, I don’t think those answers have to be completely satisfactory to kids.  I do not feel that kids have to rationally understand and accept every decision that is made for them -- and I think it is completely within the authority of parents to make various decisions for their children that they believe are in their children’s best interests.  But parents do need to show their kids that they have wrestled with these questions.  Parents need to demonstrate that the answers exist.  This, by the way, is one of the reasons why we invite parents to speak to kids on the bimah on their bar or bat mitzvah day at our synagogue: to encourage parents to make the effort at articulating what Jewish identity means to them.

And I’ll go one step further.  We can’t build a vibrant Jewish community unless we’re all willing to ask the Wicked Child’s question to each other.  As you may know, our community has participated in a community organizing initiative called Panim el Panim - Face to Face.  If you know something about how community organizing works, you know that the first step is getting people to share their stories with each other.   Community organizing efforts often begin with one-to-one conversations that begin with a question like “What keeps you up at night”?  Or “What gets you up in the morning?”  Questions that just cut through the pleasantries and help people to talk about their values, their concerns, their dreams and hopes.  Of all the Passover questions, the so-called Wicked Child is the only one who is asking a question on that level of depth.

For some parts of the Jewish spectrum, the answer to the question “What does this service mean to you?” is simple:  “I am carrying out God’s will.  I am fulfilling commandments.  That’s what a Jew is supposed to do!”  But our community needs to provide a wider spectrum of answers than this.  It may have been the case at one time that “God said so” was enough to convince most Jews to engage in Jewish practices. But today, saying “God said so” opens up more questions than it answers.  Before doing something because “God said so,” we want to know what you mean by “God.”  And we want to know what  you mean by “said” -- as there are a variety of ways that one can understand the process of revelation.  And we want to know what you mean by “so” -- as there are a variety of ways to understand the process of transmission of Jewish tradition.  For some, “God said so” is the answer - but for many, “God said so” is only the very beginning of an answer.

So what does this service mean to me?  Here’s just a little bit of my answer.  

Even as a child, it was the Jewish experiences in my life that made me feel most alive, most excited to be part of something great -- to be called to serve God and others and the world -- and it was the Jewish experiences in my life that gave me the most satisfaction.

My parents thoughtfully gave me a wide diversity of Jewish experiences, that showed me that Judaism itself is a wide wide world -- as well as a portal for entering and interacting with the entire wide world.  They also encouraged me to pursue experiences where I was the only Jew - from which I developed a confidence about my Jewish identity that is enhanced in the presence of community, but doesn’t dissipate in the absence of a community.

Studying Jewish texts was energizing for me specifically because it encouraged dialogue and questioning.  Some of the wisdom came from the texts directly, but a lot of the wisdom came from the people who were studying.  And then, thanks to the texts, wisdom I didn’t know was in me - came from me.

And the first time I remember walking with a Torah scroll around a room for people to kiss it, when I was in 11th grade, I remember thinking to myself:  I don’t know exactly what this means, but I have the sense that when I am an adult I am going to do this a lot.   Not literally:  but right now I’m holding something beautiful, and I’m taking it around and giving people the opportunity to appreciate it and respect it and learn how beautiful it is, because they might not realize it.  And whether or not I choose that as my career, I think this is something that’s going to characterize my life.

That’s just a tiny bit of my answer.  In my case, it’s related to the reason why I became a rabbi, but it’s really a different question.

The first step to building a community is really listening to each other - prompting each other to tell our diverse stories about what this
avodah means to us.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that the primary problem in the American Jewish community is that people aren’t answering the Wicked Child’s question.  You’re probably quite aware that American Judaism is going through some pretty significant changes right now.   There was a time when it could simply be expected that Jews would connect with the Jewish community -- now, for many, that is no longer an expectation.   I find that when I talk with Jews who are disaffected from Jewish life, Jews who the tradition might label as the wicked child, say something like:  “It’s not that I am rejecting Judaism; I just don’t really see the point of connecting with Judaism.  Jewish observances and holidays are pleasant enough - but I would rather spend my time and energy focusing on the things that are more important to me, rather than doing something that separates me from the overwhelming majority of people in my society.”  This is not rebellion; this is assimilation -- and it happens simply because isn’t easy to maintain a minority identity in an open society.

Decades ago, the Israeli sociologist Daniel Elazar said that the best way to picture the American Jewish community is as a series of concentric circles -- an innermost core, representing the Jews with the strongest Jewish commitments, and then larger circles radiating outward.  And he predicted that the following is the future of the American Jewish community:  the innermost circles will get stronger than they have ever been, and the outermost circles will disappear as the people in those circles blend into American society.  And that’s exactly what we are seeing now.  The vibrant core of American Jewish life gets stronger and stronger - while those at the periphery are falling away.  Not because they’re wicked. It’s not even that they are particularly rebellious.  It’s simply that they have not been given a reason why the
avodah of Judaism should be THEIR avodah.

Some sociologists studying the American Jewish community use the terms ‘thick’ and thin’ to describe different types of Jewish identity.  Someone with a ‘thick’ Jewish identity is probably connected to a lot of Jewish organizations, has engaged with various kinds of Jewish study, and does Jewish things in many different contexts in his or her life.  At home. With friends.  With immediate family. With extended family.  With Jewish institutions.  On line.  Formally and informally.  While someone with a ‘thin’ Jewish identity is more likely to get Jewish knowledge from one source, to participate in  Jewish activities just in ONE life context:  just at home. or just with a particular branch of the extended family.  Or just at synagogue -- and just one particular synagogue.

And one of the differences between the thick and the thin is that for the person with the thick Jewish identity, Judaism is -- one of the frequencies at which his or life vibrates.  Every Jewish experience that such a person has reverberates with the memories of numerous other Jewish experiences, teachings, and insights -- adding additional dimensions to every Jewish experience.  And for the person with the thin Jewish identity - those reverberations are absent.  As a result, every Jewish activity, every Jewish observance, every Jewish experience and teaching, is likely to feel more shallow.  And the question מה העבודה הזאת לכם?  What does this service mean to you? - is less likely to be a request for real information about what this service means to you.  It is more likely to be a confession of ignorance:  I don’t really get what you see in this.

In this connection, the Jewish educator Gil Graff likes to tell the story of a poor Russian Jew, 140 years ago, who heard from his more affluent acquaintances that blintzes are delicious. Never having tasted a blintz, he asked his wife – the cook in the family – to prepare a meal of blintzes.
She said:  We can’t make blintzes! You need eggs for blintzes, and we don’t have eggs!”

So the husband said, ‘ok - skip the eggs.’

But blintzes need milk and we don’t have milk! -- ok, use water instead.

“But blintzes are filled with fruit, or cheese or potatoes, and we don’t have any of that! -- ok, skip the filling.

“But blintzes are made with fine, sifted flour, and we have only coarse meal!”

The frustrated husband responds:  “Just make blintzes with the ingredients we have on hand.  I’m sure it will be fine.”

So within an hour the wife presents the husband with “blintzes” (of course, made only of course flour mixed with water).  And he takes one bite and exclaims: “Never for the life of me will I understand why people get so excited about blintzes!”

And what’s the lesson here? -- Jewish tradition is wonderfully appealing if you actually encounter it as a living civilization.  If you are at home in its texts.  If you have learned enough about it that it functions as a source of comfort for you and it brings you joy.  When all these things are true, Judaism truly works its magic, so to speak, and it’s not surprising if it quickly one of the most important values in one’s life.

But --  well, we have to be careful with this story.  As a vegetarian, I know something about making substitutions in recipes.   I have no desire to enter into the philosophical question about whether it’s appropriate to use the word ‘blintzes’ to refer to the food that was made in this story, or at what point the crucial ingredient was substituted such that the concoction ceased to be ‘blintzes.’  But what is clear is:  sometimes the substitutions you make in a recipe can have a quite dramatic effect on how appealing the final product is.

This is not to say that ANYONE has discovered the fool-proof recipe for giving the next generation a Jewish identity that keeps them Jewish.  But there are ways to maximize the chances.

One of the more controversial passages of the torah is a section in the book of Exodus where all the people of Israel announce נעשה ונשמע - we will fulfill the commandments, and we will listen to them.”  And the Talmud suggests that there is something very deliberate about the chronology that is stated there:  the doing comes first, and then the listening.  In other words, rabbinic literature understands that the people of Israel pledged to observe the commandments, sight unseen.

This is a controversial passage in that it appears to assert that we didn’t CHOOSE to fulfill the commandments - rather, Judaism is just an obedience game.   Judaism is basically about dutifully doing what we’re told to do.  As can imagine, this idea is very much at odds with how most liberal Jews live a Jewish life.

But as troubling as this image may be, it is true in the following respect:  In any spiritual practice, the action usually comes first, and the thinking, listening, and understanding comes later.  Or in other words:  Do Jewish things and enjoy the experience, in a supportive environment, and you will have created the kinds of memories that will make  you feel more positively about doing more Jewish things in the future. AND you’ll also be more likely to be introspective about what you’re doing, to engage with the spiritual wisdom of what you’re doing - but the first step is probably not the introspection and spiritual striving. The first step is the living.

And it’s for this reason that one of our most important goals in our Learning Center is to help kids to develop an emotionally positive connection with Judaism and the Jewish community - to help them to understand the synagogue as a place where they are welcome and where they are treasured; a place that celebrates them when they are young and continues to challenge them as they grow towards adulthood.  With the hope that those experiences - together with Jewish experiences they have at home, and in Jewish youth groups and summer camps and with extended family and friends - will reverberate together, and help them to craft their own deep and rich answer to the question ‘Mah ha-Avodah Ha-zot Lachem?” What does this service mean to you?
Of all the illustrations of the Four Children in all the Haggadot I have seen, my favorite - and many people’s favorite - continues to be the illustration by Dan Reisinger in the Rabbinical Assembly’s Feast of Freedom Haggadah (1982), featuring four cutouts of a human form in different colors, that are then mixed and matched so that each of the four children is a different amalgam of all four colors.

In some ways, each of us is wise, and each of us is simple, and each of us is silent. And the ‘wicked child’ resides in each of us. This year, and every year, may we never stop asking ourselves and each other his very wise question.


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