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Sunday, June 29, 2014

More Wiseness - Four Sons Walked into Paradise part 3

When we left off last time we were wondering why the Wise Son is first in the list of the Four Sons. This is especially curious considering that he is the last to be mentioned in the Torah.

Let's pull together some things we already pointed out.

First, the Wise Son as we see him in Deuteronomy is asking a question about the entire Torah. We pointed out that the notion of wisdom expressed by the Wise Son is based on a fundamental awe of God. We understand that the seeking of wisdom is a sign of wisdom itself. And we understand that the Wise Son perceives the importance of community.

All of these reasons together could be the basis for the M'chilta speaking about the Wise Son first. Moreover, his question introduces us to some of the most basic and desirable elements of the Torah. His question invites us to discuss all aspects of Torah, from the simplest point to the loftiest concept.

Or, another way to think about it is maybe the reason we kick off with the Wise Son is because he is the archetype we would most like to emulate.

For that reason, speaking about the Wise Son draws us in immediately. If we are actual parents, this is the child we may want our own children to be: Respectful, inquisitive, a child of faith and conscious of others.

As a kid, I remember the Wise Son as being the part of the haggadah that all of us wanted to read (we kids took turns reading different sections—since I was youngest, I usually got stuck with the One Who Doesn't Know to Ask ). 

Knowing as we do that the Wise Son of the Torah is asking about the entire Torah, how do Chazal come to place him (and the other Sons) at the seder table? And even if we do have reason to bring them into that context, why did Chazal change the answers given to the Sons from the answers given in the Torah?

The inspiration may, in fact, originate with the Wise Son.

Here is the passage from the Torah with the question and the answer:

דברים ו(כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:
(כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֪ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיֹּצִיאֵ֧נוּ יְקֹוָ֪ק מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה:
(כב) וַיִּתֵּ֣ן יְקֹוָ֡ק אוֹתֹ֣ת וּ֠מֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִ֨ים וְרָעִ֧ים׀ בְּמִצְרַ֪יִם בְּפַרְעֹ֥ה וּבְכָל־בֵּית֖וֹ לְעֵינֵֽינוּ:
(כג) וְאוֹתָ֖נוּ הוֹצִ֣יא מִשָּׁ֑ם לְמַ֙עַן֙ הָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ לָ֤תֶת לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֵֽינוּ:
(כד) וַיְצַוֵּ֣נוּ יְקֹוָ֗ק לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה לְיִרְאָ֖ה אֶת־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ לְט֥וֹב לָ֙נוּ֙ כָּל־הַיָּמִ֔ים לְחַיֹּתֵ֖נוּ כְּהַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה:
(כה) וּצְדָקָ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לָּ֑נוּ כִּֽי־נִשְׁמֹ֨ר לַעֲשׂ֜וֹת אֶת־כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֗את לִפְנֵ֪י יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּֽנוּ:

Deuteronomy 6 (20) When your son will ask you tomorrow saying: “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?” (21) And you will say to your son: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong arm. (22) And the Lord gave us signs and wonders, great and bad, in Egypt with Pharaoh and with all his house before our eyes. (23) And He took us out from there in order to bring us to give to us the land which he swore to our fathers. (24) And the Lord commanded us to do all of these statutes to be in awe of the Lord our God for our good for all the days, to make us alive as on this day. (25) And it will be righteousness for us when we observe to do all of this commandment before the Lord our God as He commanded us.

Bottom line: The son asks us what are all the commandments in the Torah. We don't answer by listing the commandments; we understand the question to mean what is the nature of these commandments. We answer by giving him a conceptual basis for following them: We are obliged to fulfill these commandments as a result of God saving us from Egypt and leading us to the Promised Land. We further explain that ultimately all of these commandments are inherently for our own good.

The answer the Torah supplies fulfills in the most basic sense the mitzvah of haggadah, of telling our children about the going out of Egypt and its consequences. 
Therefore, this passage pulls us to the seder table where we are enjoined to tell our children about the redemption from Egypt with all its myriad implications.

And now that we've said all that, perhaps we have the primary reason for why the Wise Son is mentioned first. It is his question in the Torah that provokes the answer which is, in essence, the haggadah itself.

Once we sit our Wise Son down at that table, though, things change. 
Next time, we'll contrast how the Torah replies to the Wise Son with how the M'chilta replies.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Wise Guy - Four Sons Walk into Paradise part 2

We are introduced to the Four Sons on the night of the seder while reading the Haggadah and partaking of the seder meal. This context implies that each child is asking about the seder itself and why the ceremony is different than what they are accustomed to. In the structure of the Haggadah, the Four Sons are parallel to the Four Questions which are asked earlier. Unlike the Four Questions which, in fact, are four distinct questions each pointing to something unique in the seder, the Four Sons are all asking essentially the same question. That question is: What's going on here tonight? 
Sitting at the seder the young participants notice a variety of distinct procedures and foods. A striking example is that even though kiddush was already said, the family has not yet begun to eat the main meal!

However, when we examine the sources in the Torah for each of these children, we find that each of them seems to be asking about different things. Only the Evil Son seems to be asking about the night of the seder. The One Who Doesn't Know to Ask is addressed in the context of eating matzah for the week of Pessach. The Tam is asking about the mitzvot in regards to the first born. 
The Wise Son is actually asking about the entire Torah. 
The Wise Son is not the first of these sons to appear in the Torah; in fact, he is the last. His question is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:20. In the chapter prior to his question (Chapter 5), Moshe recounted how the children of Israel received the Decalogue. After the people requested that Moshe continue to receive the Torah directly from God and then transmit it to them, God agreed to their request and continued to give Moshe the rest of the Torah. 
Chapter 6 begins by speaking about the entirety of the Torah and various categories of mitzvot. This leads into the essential declaration of faith, the Shma, and then some other general concepts of how to relate to God and the Torah.

It is in this context we find the following verse:

דברים פרק ו (כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son asks tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?

When we read this in context, we understand that this son is actually asking to find out what all the commandments of the Torah are. He already comprehends that there are various categories of commandments (testimonies, statutes, judgments). He is clearly a seeker of wisdom and thus Chazal see him as the Wise Son.

Further, by acknowledging that the commandments are God given, and he accepts that the Lord is his personal God, we understand that he sees himself as one of the tribe, not as an outsider asking as an observer.

Nonetheless, this Wise Son seems to exclude himself from being personally commanded to fulfill these mitzvot in that he says “that the Lord our God commanded you.” The M'chilta seemingly avoids this issue by changing the word to us. You might say that the M'chilta is eliding an essential issue here since it takes the Evil Son to task for saying “to you” and thereby excluding himself from the wider community (as we'll examine in a later post). By simply changing the original wording it all becomes so convenient!

However, it would seem that Chazal had a deeper grammatical understanding of the verse which justifies the change when rendering the verse in the M'chilta. It gets a bit technical and I will talk about it when we examine the Evil Son.

For the moment, though, let's get back to this Wise Son.

We now see that in his original context, the son asking this question indicates wisdom at least to the extent that he recognizes different sorts of commandments. But is that sufficient to give this inquirer the appellation of 'wise?' Just because he wants to know a lot of legal detail?

I believe that this desire for technical knowledge of the Torah is secondary to the acknowledgment of “the Lord our God.” It is the recognition by this child, first and foremost, that the Lord is his personal God that highlights his wisdom.

This is based on a couple of verses elsewhere in Tanach which the midrash took into account when determining that this question is indeed asked by a Wise Son.

The first one is from Psalms:

תהלים פרק קיא (י) רֵ֮אשִׁ֤ית חָכְמָ֨ה׀ יִרְאַ֬ת יְקֹוָ֗ק שֵׂ֣כֶל ט֖וֹב לְכָל־עֹשֵׂיהֶ֑ם תְּ֝הִלָּת֗וֹ עֹמֶ֥דֶת לָעַֽד:

Psalms 111:10 The beginning of wisdom is awe of the Lord, a good success for all who do them, his praise stands forever.

That is, in order to acquire wisdom, one must have already inculcated an awe of the Lord. This awe, combined with the wisdom thereby acquired, will bring success to those who combine them and they will be praised for all time as a result. (Yes, as usual, one can interpret this verse from the Hebrew differently. This is my own translation based mainly on the RaDaK)

The main point for us, though, is that one becomes wise in a Torah world by first having awe for the Lord. This is demonstrated in the question, as we mentioned, by the declaration that the Lord is the asker's personal God.

Another significant verse is found in Proverbs:

משלי פרק ד (ז) רֵאשִׁ֣ית חָ֭כְמָה קְנֵ֣ה חָכְמָ֑ה וּבְכָל־קִ֝נְיָנְךָ֗ קְנֵ֣ה בִינָֽה:

Proverbs 4:7 (At) the beginning of wisdom, acquire wisdom! And with all your acquisitions acquire understanding.

Since this is a child, he is at the beginning of his career to acquire wisdom. He demonstrates the characteristic of a wise person simply by his attempt to get wisdom.

Furthermore, by seeing himself as part of the larger community, he shows a wise understanding of the nature of Torah, namely that this Divine Wisdom is meant for all of his tribe for all time. The best he can do is to try to grasp what he can.

But why does the M'chilta speak about the Wise Son first even though he comes last in the Torah?

Why is the answer to this son in the M'chilta not the answer given in the Torah itself?

Tune in next time for more thrilling insights!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

So Who Are These Four Sons, And Why Do They Ask So Many Questions!? - Four Sons Walk into Paradise part 1

Anyone who has been to a seder has met the Four Sons. How they came to attend every seder is a point not often discussed, though. Also, do we ever really get to know them? Doubtless, many of you are familiar with a plethora of questions and explanations about who they are but please indulge me while I reintroduce them and hopefully understand them more intimately. The oldest source for the section of the Haggadah with the Four Sons is the M'chilta D'Rabbi Yishmael which is primarily a halachic midrash on Shmot (Exodus). Here is the text as it appears there:
מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא - מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יח

מה העדות והחקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אותנו (דברים ו כ) נמצאת אומר ארבעה בנים הם אחד חכם ואחד רשע ואחד תם ואחד שאינו יודע לשאול. חכם מה הוא אומר מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צוה ה' אלהינו אותנו אף אתה פתח לו בהלכות הפסח אין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן. רשע מה הוא אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם לכם ולא לו ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר אף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג ח) לי ולא לך אלו היית שם לא היית נגאל. תם מה הוא אומר מה זאת ואמרת אליו בחוזק יד הוציאנו ה' ממצרים מבית עבדים. ושאינו יודע לשאול את פתח לו שנא' והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא וגו'.

M'chilta D'Rabbi Yishmael, Parshat Bo, Tractate Pessach, Parsha 18

What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord commanded us? (Deuteronomy 6:20—In the original text it actually says 'commanded you'. We'll address that later). We find it tells us that there are four sons: One is Wise, one is Evil, one is Tam (we'll translate that later), and one Who Doesn't Know To Ask.

The Wise, what does he say? ”What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded us?” So you should open to him with the laws of the Passover: We don't finish off after the Passover (sacrifice) with dessert.

The Evil, what does he say? “What is this service to you?” To you and not to him. And since he removed himself from the community and denied the essence, so you break his power (literally 'blunt his teeth') and say to him 'because of this the Lord did for me in my going out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8).' For me and not for you; had you been there you would not have been redeemed.

The Tam, what does he say? “What is this?” And you say to him: With a strong hand He took us out of Egypt, out of the place of bondage (Exodus 13:9).

And The One Who Doesn't Know To Ask: You open to him, as it says “and you should tell your son on that day...(Exodus 13:8)”

Let's begin understanding this midrash by pointing out that the Torah commands us to tell our sons about the going out of Egypt. This is learned from the verse that says:

שמות פרק יג (ח) וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה יְקֹוָק֙ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
Exodus 13:8 And you will tell your son on that day saying “For this did the Lord do for me in my going out of Egypt.”

This commandment is anticipated earlier in the story just before the plague of locusts.

שמות פרק י (א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְקֹוָק֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֫י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֪י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ:(ב) וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י יְקֹוָֽק:

Exodus 10:1,2 And the Lord said to Moses “Come to pharaoh for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants heavy in order to place these, my signs, in his midst; and in order that you will recount to the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of Egypt and my signs that I placed with them and you will know that I am the Lord.”

In fact, then, one of the purposes of the spectacle of the plagues was to talk about them later to our sons (and our daughters—but I won't digress on that here).

So it doesn't surprise us when we find the Torah telling us later that we should tell about the going out of Egypt to our children (let's stick with that term from here on in).

What does provoke some thought, though, is that the Torah mentions this in more than one place. Chazal (our sages of blessed memory-- the rabbis of the Talmudic era) understood that the Torah does not repeat itself for no reason, therefore, each time this notion is mentioned warrants further inspection to figure out what the Torah is adding that we didn't know previously.

It turns out that in four places we're told in command form to tell our children about the going out of Egypt. Moreover, in three of those places the command is introduced by a question that our child will ask us.

Why the four answers? Why the three questions? Why not four questions and four answers? Why not just one question and one answer?

The M'chilta answers this by telling us that the Torah understood that there are four types of people whom we need to address, namely a wise one, an evil one, a tam one and one who doesn't know to ask.

How does the M'chilta know that these are the four types spoken of? The easiest to figure out is the one who doesn't know to ask. After all, the answer we give him from Exodus 13:8, and you should tell your son on that day saying, etc., is not preceded by a question. So this must be addressed to one who didn't know to ask.

The other types are not so simple to deduce from the verses themselves. We will examine each one carefully and derive an approach to understanding how the M'chilta figures them out.

But before I end this posting, let me point out that the types listed don't seem 'balanced;' that is, we don't talk about the wise son and the stupid son (although in alternate versions a stupid son is substituted for the tam), or the evil son and the good son.

Rather, Chazal understood that the four types are archetypes of different kinds of people all of whom must be considered in this context. Moreover, I would say that Chazal understood that all of these archetypes are actually part of each of us as individuals.

So next time, we'll start off by looking at the wise son.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Four Sons Walk into Paradise... an Introduction

This series is dedicated to my late father, Benjamin, and my late sister, Marsha, both of whom approached Pardes in their own, unique and loving ways.

And, יבל"ח, to my daughter Milcah who makes sure to stick up for the רשע at every seder.


The title of this series, Four Sons Walk into Paradise, is not really the beginning of a joke. Rather, it is a result of close examination of one of the most famous stories of the Talmud which begins 'Four entered the Pardes' and how it relates to one of the most well known midrashim which we repeat each year at the Passover seder, that of the Four Sons. But before I get into those details, a little background:

When I was about 12 years old and going to Hillel Academy in Dayton I became fascinated by the notion of Kabbalah. The draw was mainly to what I thought to be Jewish magic and thought that if I managed to learn the right stuff I could perform my own little miracles, like grant myself three wishes or get out of attending school altogether.

I requested from our principal that we devote some time to studying Kabbalah which he deflected by informing me that one should be forty years old before indulging. I wasn't quite interested enough to pursue the study on my own and certainly felt inadequate to the task. I also felt that this one more thing that grownups are keeping away from deserving kids.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem. Already taken with Talmudic study, I found that devoting myself practically around the clock to that was plenty for me.

But I still had the lingering feeling that I was missing something, kabbalah-wise.

One of the more fascinating realizations I had while studying Talmud, though, was that many aggadic passages had a mystical flavor or subtext.

Talmud can be roughly divided into two types of literature: halachic and aggadic. Halacha is, of course, discussion of Jewish law. It is legalistic by nature and fraught with logic and rational thinking. Aggadah, by contrast, is narrative, legend, recounting of dreams and the like. It feels much more free form and may or may not seem to abide by the logic of halachic passages.

Yeshivas traditionally skipped over aggadic passages when learning Talmud. Except in a few obvious cases when aggadah is brought to illustrate a halachic concept, it was considered to be somehow lesser than halachic discussion. Aggadah did not generally produce an immediate halachic result so it was not considered important. Generally aggadah was viewed as a side show, perhaps a study in mussar (ethics), a digression from the meatier discussions of halachic minutiae.

However, I came to understand that particular aggadot (the plural form of aggadah) were strategically placed in the text of the Talmud not just as a chance digression and not only to illustrate halachic concepts but as part of an integral understanding of Torah with a capital T.

Consider that the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is itself a combination of mitzvot (halacha) and narrative (aggadah). The first question which Rashi raises in his commentary on the Torah assumes that the main purpose of the Torah is simply to acquire practical knowledge of the mitzvot. He implies by the question that the narrative portions are secondary.

But the reality is that tradition views the Torah as a singular whole. One cannot truly fulfill or even comprehend the Torah without comprehending the narrative. A subtle interplay between narrative and law ensues throughout the entire Torah.

Some examples are obvious such as the narrative of God commanding Avraham to circumcise himself and his household (Genesis 17:9-14) serving as the basis for the mitzvah of circumcision as related later, after the giving of the Torah at Sinai (Leviticus 12:3).

More subtle is the declaration by God in Genesis 1:26 that he makes humans in His image. This fundamental concept serves in turn as a basis for perhaps all of the mitzvot bein adam l'chavero (laws between man and his fellow man, like caring for others, torts, etc.)

Creation of the universe by God serves a conceptual basis for mitzvot bein adam lamakom (laws between man and God including ritual mitzvot like keeping kosher, laying tefillin and laws regarding belief in God and Torah).

And so we come to understand that before we study mitzvot, we study narrative at least as a way of forming a basis to study mitzvot, but perhaps also to understand them in their own right. Even more, perhaps we study mitzvot in order to understand narrative.

In short, the two are inextricably linked.

And with that, we'll start off next time by looking at the midrash of the four sons.