The Question's The ThingVolume 4 , Issue 3 (March, 1991 | Adar, 5751)
Passover brings to mind images of matzoh, wine, stealing the afikoman and the singing of the song about the billy goat, the Chad Gadyah. Yet above all else, I suggest, the essence of Passover lies in the questions.
For most of us, the first question we ever asked in Hebrew was the mah nishtanah, why is this night different from all other nights? The entire structure of the seder meal is built around questions. The seder plate with the roasted shank bone and the charoset, that mixture of chopped apple, nuts and wine, are there to engender questions. The text of the Hagadah tells of the four sons, three of whom ask questions to which we provide answers and the fourth, who does not know how to question, we answer in any event.
I have vivid memories of my sedarim growing up. In particular, I remember the year my beloved grandfather had two questions about the popular poem and song, Dayenu. I read from the Hagadah, "If he had not split the Red Sea for us, it would have sufficed." And then my grandfather had asked me, "But how can that be? If he had not split the Red Sea for us, with Pharaoh's army chasing after us, we all would have died? How can we say that 'it would have sufficed'?" And another verse in the song was just as troubling. My grandfather again asked, "How can we say, 'If he had brought us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have sufficed'? The whole point of the exodus was so that we would be able to serve God and receive the Torah."
Over the years, our extended family having grown too large for all of us to be together, when I began conducting the seder, I would repeat the questions of my now deceased grandfather. For me, it was as if he were at my seder. And some twenty years later I saw the answers to his questions in the Me'am Loez, a commentary on the Bible that is revered by Sephardic Jewry as much as Rashi's commentary is revered by Ashkenazic Jewry. As to its having sufficed had God not split the Red Sea, the Me'am Loez notes that the real miracle was in the fact that Pharaoh had the courage to once again come after the Jewish people in battle. Egypt had been devastated by the ten plagues, yet God deliberately infused Pharaoh with false courage to once again attack the Jewish people so that, in a climactic episode, the sea drowned the Egyptian army and its leader. Thus, the Jews were once again embraced with the glory of God's strength and saw with their own eyes the defeat of their enemies. Even had God not granted the miracle of giving Pharaoh the courage, it would have sufficed.
Me'am Loez on Dayenu
And as to it having sufficed had God not given us the Torah, the Me'am Loez states that this refers to the traditional belief that the first two of the Ten Commandments were given directly by God with the remaining eight commandments having been transmitted by Moses. Even had God chosen to have all Ten Commandments transmitted by Moses, this would have sufficed.
Whenever I think of these answers, I think of my grandfather. (I even understand why, great scholar that he was, my grandfather had not come across these answers: because this Sephardic commentary was written in Ladino, the folk language of Sephardic Jewry and would not be translated into Hebrew and later into English until after his death.) Regardless of whether one appreciates these answers, they are dear to me because for twenty years I had sought an answer and had repeated these questions in my grandfather's name and even now, when I repeat the questions with the answers, it is done in his name.
Oddly enough, the answers to other questions that he taught to me do not resonate in my memory as vividly. It was the unanswered questions that stayed dearest to me. And only now do I believe I am beginning to understand why this is so. In a way, they deal with the difference between a fundamentalist view of religion as contrasted with a more adaptive one.
The right-wing Orthodox perspective on the tradition is simple: all derives from Mount Sinai. The laws were transmitted by God to Moses and by Moses to the elders and afterwards throughout the generations. All knowledge was given and all questions were answered at Mount Sinai, and any lack of understanding today is attributable to that which has been lost to our collective memory. In such a scheme, individual insight can only be validated if a prior commentary recorded the view. Innovation is forbidden and, in the words of the Chasam Sofer, the great 19th century sage, "All that is new is forbidden under the Torah." In other words, all of the answers have been given.
What I have learned from my father is almost the opposite. He always has said to me, "There's no such thing as a wrong question, only a wrong way to ask a question."
Now I will confess that I have often asked the questions in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons (as anyone who went to school with me will attest). But I have been taught to understand the importance of questions. Indeed, I advocate that the questions are more important than the answers.
Is the Bible Divine?
Which brings me to a key issue: whether the Bible is divine. While I share that belief with my Orthodox brethren, I recognize that what constitute the answers to questions are the human interpretation of the divine text. Similarly, in the belief that the Oral Law originates at Mount Sinai, its application to new situations is subject to human interpretation. In Anglo Saxon corrts, every judge knows that each new case represents a unique set of facts to which the law must be applied; every dispute represents the balancing of various principles. The law does not change; however, the application to new circumstances requires that each generation and each individual apply himself to the questions of the day. This is not a mindset that must lead to major revolutions in the law, but it is a mindset which I prefer. So to me, the Torah is eternal, but the interpretation thereof is subject to the human condition. And therein lies the excitement because, at the same time, in the belief that each individual is unique, each of us will reveal new insights into our heritage.
This also means that answers may change over time as new interpretations reveal themselves. Even the rabbis recognized this in the midrash which describes Moses visiting the school of Rabbi Akiva. At first, the tale states, Moses sat up front with the first-rank students. Not understanding the discussion, Moses moved back, row by row, until he was with the novice students in the rear of the classroom. I believe the rabbis meant by this tale that while the principles of the Torah had remained unchanged from the time of Moses to Aldva, the application to new situations which were unfamiliar to Moses caused the greatest leader we have ever known to be relegated to the back of the room.
To restate the matter: as the Torah is eternal, the answers never change. But each generation raises new questions and therein lies the excitement. The answers are there in our heritage and the joys are in the new questions brought on by each generation and each individual. Just as I remember the questions of my grandfather more readily than the answers, I also reconcile an eternal Torah with an ever changing world.
Joseph Rackman is a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent &Lehrer.