Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Wicked Child and Boycotts

Every year when I come to write a drasha for Pesach, I find myself returning to the same theme – the wicked child!

Perhaps, as a second child, I identify with this second child more than the others, or because we are all fascinated by the rebel (especially the one whose rebellion does not prevent him from coming home for Yom Tov).

But still … who is the wicked child, and why do we label him so?

The relevant verse, the source of the question of the wicked child, is found in chapter 12 of Shemot (Exodus), verse 26

וְהָיָה כִּי יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם

And it will be when your children say to you “what is this service to you?”

On the page of the chumash, in the eyes of the commentators, there is nothing wicked here – the question, the syntax, the tense – all is in place. It’s a question regarding keeping the laws of Passover.

In the eyes of the author of the Hagadah this is the question that is asked by the wicked child.

I think that the wicked child is indeed wicked, and one who we have to deal with in our day and age, too.

Who is he? What is the definition of a rasha (wicked child)?

The first definition of the phrase rasha we see in the Torah is when Moshe sees two Jews quarreling in Egypt, and one is striking the other.

וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ

And he said to the wicked one – why do you strike your fellow Jew?

A rasha is, and this has halachic implications, one who endangers his fellow Jew. Who strikes him and causes him pain.

And this, I think, is the problem with the rasha, the wicked child of the Hagaddah

He is not just rebellious, questioning and critical – he aims to harm.

Let’s look at his verse again: ki yomru aleychem – this child does not ask, he declares. He is not interested in a dialogue, in knowing the answer. He proclaims his question.

This is not discussion, its polemic.

But more: mah havodah hazot lachem – what is this “avodah” (slavery, burden) to you. Unlike the wise child who invokes “Hashem Elokeynu” (The Lord our G-d), the wicked child – and this is the source of the wickedness – speaks entirely as an outsider.

This is not dialogue, there is nothing shared about this conversation.

In the New American Hagadah – which I really like – Jeffrey Goldberg grapples with the very idea of, in this day and age, having a wicked child and says that he is the one who says “the fate of the Jews is not my concern.”

I agree, but I think that the wicked child goes further.

Mah avodah hazot lachem?

What is so terrible with the question? What is wrong with it is that he talks to his fellow Jew in the way that the worst critic of the Jews from outside the Jewish people would. He talks of Judaism like an anti-semite: “What’s the matter with you people?”

For this child, a transformation has happened. He adopts a non-Jewish way of looking at, talking about, the Jewish people.

This goes beyond being a critic – critics are important. If the wise child is truly wise, he will need, as the Prophets and outstanding Scholars do in every generation, to challenge the assumptions, corruption, lazy thinking, and prejudices of the Jewish community.

And it is beyond assimilation – assimilation is a tragedy. But the assimilated Jew is not at the Seder night at all.

The wicked child is there to protest.

He taunts the father: why this avodah – this burden, this slavery? But the irony, the painful irony, is that for no one else around the table is Judaism an avodah. But it is for the wicked son.

Because he doesn’t participate as a Jew. He participates as one who can’t look at Jews with anything other than hostile eyes.

I had this insight into the real wickedness of the wicked son when I was thinking about why it is that Jews seem to be at the forefront of so many campaigns to harm Israel.

For example, Habimah, the Tel Aviv arts company is not, I imagine, known for its hard right wing or militaristic views. Yet, because it performed a play in the settlement of Ariel, artists in London (with Jewish names being the most prominent and the most eager) insist that it should be boycotted and not be allowed to perform in the UK.

(In truth, it is not necessary for them to have performed in the settlement wherever Israeli artists, athletes perform, they are the target of campaigners and protesters.)

Yet, it is Jewish people at the forefront of these boycotts. The recent attempt to boycott Israeli hummus at the Park Slope Food cooperative is just one example, of what is happening – even here in New York – more and more.

When a Jew says “I care about Israel and I want to change her”, that’s everyone’s right.

When a Jew joins in the obsessions of the non-Jewish world with Israel and the Jews – that is not alright.

Israel today is, as for the last 60 years, vilified, blamed, obsessed over and despised. What for other people would be a national right of self protection, for Israel, is a war crime.

Syria can massacre people in their thousands, and the world, in fact, yawns. Yet for anyone who has ever come face to face with an anti-Israel campaigner, there is, to my mind, a hatred, an obsession, with Jews that has its roots far earlier than 1948.

And when a Jew becomes part of that, expresses their attachment to Judaism by being like those who obsess, blame, vilify hate Israel and the Jewish people, only more so, that is to say “mah avodah hazot lachem”. To look at Judaism with the cold disapproval of much of the rest of the world, and in doing so legitimize and make common cause with Israel’s enemies, that is who the Hagadah refers to as the wicked child.

May Jews criticize Israel? I hope so! We all have that right and we should use it wisely.

But when Jews join in with the greatest manifestation of anti-semitism since the holocaust, when they adopt the anti-semites’ world view that Israel is uniquely guilty, uniquely dangerous, uniquely evil, then they have crossed every acceptable line.

Its not criticism of Israel – it is incitement. It is not motivated by a concern for human rights, but rather by hatred.

The agenda of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) in delegitimizing  Israel, is an attempt to destroy the state of Israel, to places the lives of millions of people at risk

The father says to the wicked son: Do you look at Israel and see it, for all its problems and shortcomings, as a miracle, our safe haven, our homeland, our people? Or do you see it as the worst country in the world, an embarrassment, a threat to peace, uniquely guilty, uniquely dangerous, born in sin? Do you look at your fellow Jews, of whatever persuasion, and see them as family – quirky, infuriating sometimes, but loveable, people to whom you belong, and you would protect, like a mother would protect her children? Or do your recoil, in shame and embarrassment, paranoid that your friends may think that you are just like them?

Its has been pointed out that much of the Hagadah is really an answer in one form or another to each of the 4 children.

So, for example, “Dayenu” may be an answer to the simple son, helping him see how much really happened at yetziat metrayim.

The story of the “Rabbis at Bnei Brak” is directed at the chacham, the wise son – even if you think you know it all, you really do not.

What part of the Hagaddah directly addresses the Rasha?

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵיֽנוּ וְלָנֽוּ. שֶׁלֹא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד, עָמַד עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, עוֹמְדִים עָלֵיֽנוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנֽוּ. וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם

And this is what kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving. For, not only one arose and tried to destroy us, rather in every generation they try to destroy us, and Hashem saves us from their hands.

You may think you are sophisticated, that you have much more insight than we do. You may think you are, on some level, helping. That if we sacrificed more of our safety, accepted the words of people who are murderers and say one thing in Arabic and another in Hebrew, we would be safer. That if we apologize some more it will help us?

But you are dead wrong. Because we are under attack.

Omdim aleynu likaloytenu – and you need to wake up and ask yourself – how did it happen that I have become so treacherous, that I can rival the worst anti-Semite with my hatred for my fellow Jews?

I read on Erev Yom Tov of the Jewish Voices for Peace Hagaddah. It contains, for example, “the 10 plague of the Israeli occupation”, the nakba dayenu and a l’chayim to the boycott of Israel.

Critics of Israel are not wicked. Democracy and debate are the greatest of freedoms, and we embrace them. Truth be told, the Jewish community needs always to be open to a plurality of views on Israel.  But somehow, one of the greatest tragedies of our times is that those who truly wish to harm us, delegitimize and weaken Israel to the point of destruction, have Jews more than ready to help them at every turn

In the baffled words of Moshe rabeynu, we may indeed ask:

וַיֹּאמֶר לָרָשָׁע לָמָּה תַכֶּה רֵעֶךָ

And he said to the wicked one – why do you strike your fellow Jew?

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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in current affairs, Holidays, Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Shaul Robinson


The Importance of Memories at Pesach

I’d like to speak a little about the importance of memories at Pesach. What do you think of when you first taste the matzah, the charoset and all of the other traditional Pesach foods?

In “Remembrance of Things Past” Marcel Proust describes the feeling of tasting a long forgotten food – Madeleine cakes – and the rush of memories that came with them:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Pesach is my favorite holiday. Yes it is, as all of us can testify, a lot of work, but it is such a special time – such a spiritual time, so emotional.

And one of the appeals of Pesach, for all of us, is tradition. A sense of continuity. A sense of the generations, stretching back, stretching forward.

I don’t know where the contemporary tune for Mah Nishtanah originated. It may not even be that old, but I don’t imagine there is a market for a new one.

There are parts of Pesach, seder night in particular, that are just defined by the way they have always been.

And I think what makes Pesach so beautiful is that however much work it can be (and it is a huge amount of work) when we come to seder night – with grandmother’s Passover dishes, zaide’s hagadah, a favorite aunt’s recipe for charoset, or just reminiscences – the powerful sense of nostalgia, memories, makes it all worth it.

And I say all of this, because that means we might be doing Pesach all wrong.

B’khol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim

“In each generation, each individual must view himself as if he was personally liberated from Egypt.”

This means the opposite of nostalgia. It means having a sense on seder night – not of the familiar, but of the utterly, totally unknown.

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.

Thus said the LORD: I remember for you the kindness of your youth, how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.

Yetziat mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) for the Jewish people was a moment of disorientating rushing – and also an act of huge faith. It was an act of love, chesed Hashem calls it. We followed Him in to the desert, like a young couple, with an unknown future, an uncertain path ahead of them.

They were fleeing everything they knew.

Their leader was unfamiliar to them, their destination unfamiliar, their G-d unfamiliar.

They were not going home to the land they missed. They were not waiting being allowed to practice the religion they had been forbidden from keeping.

Everything for them lay in the future, the unknown.  There was nothing familiar or comforting about the first Pesach. Nothing nostalgic – it was a huge leap of faith.

Many commentators are bothered by a seemingly inexplicable fact of the narrative of the book of Shemot (Exodus).

We know we eat matzah on seder night to commemorate the fact that dough of the Jewish people didn’t have to time to rise. Yet in the 12th chapter of Shemot, the Jewish people were commanded to eat matzah the night before they left Egypt, while they were waiting in their homes during the last plague.

At that meal they eat, for the first time, the Korban Pesach (the Pascal sacrifice), commemorating an event. G-ds passing over the house of the Egyptians – that had not happened yet. I think the explanation is as follows:

When we eat matzah (and in the temple, the Korban Pesach) we are trying to recreate the experience of the first time these foods were eaten. And they were not eaten for the first time in the desert, a year later on, as an act of commemoration, of thanksgiving, for coming out of Egypt, celebrating a year of liberty.

They were eaten first by people for whom this was all happening in real time. In confusion, in fear, in faith, in the moment of leaving.

When we taste matzah, maror, korban pesach  we are supposed to feel the opposite of the familiar. We are supposed to feel that anything is possible. That events are happening that means that nothing will ever be the same again. That years and centuries of suffering can be overturned in an instant, that hopelessness and resignation can be swept away by miracles and new possibilities. That Hashem, in an instant, can show Himself. That His plan can be made clear, suffering suddenly explained. That we have to be ready to acknowledge that what we thought were the assumptions of the fabric of our daily lives can be swept away in an instant.

Pesach demands from us that we embrace and celebrate not just the very familiar, but be alive and open – indeed yearn – to experience the totally unfamiliar, the earth shattering.

The Maharal of Prague reminds us that matzah is the true symbol of freedom, because being made of the minimum of ingredients, in the minimum of time, it represents independence – the trait of not being dependent – on more things, more time, to be fulfilled.

To be a Jew is to know that certainty and stability are an illusion. Almost every holocaust memoir I have ever read notes the stark fact: In the 1930s, those who could not imagine leaving all that was familiar, did not get out – even when they had a chance.

In my life as a rabbi, I would say that not a week goes by without me meeting a Jew who tells me, in one form or another: I would love to do more, learn more, keep more, move to Israel, change myself – but my circumstances don’t allow it.

Matzah, and all of Pesach, can remind us of many things.

We rejoice in the memories. The tastes, as Proust so eloquently describes, can transport us. The embrace of tradition is more comforting than anything else can be.

But Pesach is supposed to do more than comfort. It is supposed to transport us to the day when we left Egypt, when all was new, all was fresh, when everything was possible. Let us embrace change, and never stop looking for ways for changing ourselves for the better.

Chag sameach

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Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Holidays, Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Shaul Robinson

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