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.