Parashat Aharei Mot

Shabbat Ha-gadol
Leviticus 16:1-18:30
Triennial reading: 16:1-17:7
April 19, 2008 / 14 Nisan 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Chancellor Arnold Eisen, JTS. 

“And you shall tell your child on that day, saying . . . ”

The Passover seder is built upon this commandment from the Book of Exodus—and the Haggadah urges us at the outset not just to read aloud the words on its pages but to enlarge upon the story and so make it ours. We are told to probe the narrative of the redemption from Egypt for insights about what is blocking redemption in our own day and how we can work to bring ultimate redemption into being. The question facing us as we approach the seder, then, is this: What shall we tell our children and grandchildren at Passover—particularly the teenagers, college students, and twenty-somethings who are gathered at the seder table? (If you are a person in that category, this column is written directly to you.) What is the meaning of pesah, matzah, maror, and the other symbols of Passover for us? Why do we care so much about being Jewish? And—they’d dearly like to know this—why do we long so desperately for them, the next generation, to carry on this tradition and this community?

Passover gives us a precious opportunity to talk about these things so close to our hearts. Group discussion at the seder is likely much easier than conversation with our children one-on-one. Let’s not waste the chance to do so.

Here are four points that I have made in talks to young adults in recent weeks and that you might want to adapt for your own seder conversation.

1. One of my formative Jewish memories (all of us have these, and should share them with our families) is a discussion group for teens led by the young assistant rabbi of my congregation during Saturday morning services. I was convinced that he was as anxious to be elsewhere during services as we were; whatever his motive, Rabbi Waldman probably changed me forever by introducing us to classic texts in contemporary Jewish thought. It was in that group that I first encountered Mordecai M. Kaplan’s great book Judaism as a Civilization (1934), which ends with the warning that “those who look to Judaism in its present state to provide them with a ready-made scheme for salvation in this world, or in the next, are bound to be disappointed. The Jew will have to save Judaism before Judaism will be in a position to save the Jew.” That gave me pause. I was not the only one who thought some things in Judaism needed changing.

And it was in that discussion group, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, that I first discovered Abraham Heschel’s book God in Search of Man, with its opening paragraph that meant so much to me that I memorized it, and can still recite it virtually by heart:

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”

Amazing. My experience exactly. A great tradition had somehow been surrendered to mediocrity and convention. Heschel must have been to my synagogue and written those words in response! It seemed he was speaking directly to me.

I learned from Kaplan and Heschel that I should not expect Judaism to reach me in perfect form, much less in a way calculated to suit all my needs as a thinking, feeling, striving human being concerned for the well-being of the world in the twentieth century—which is exactly what Jewish tradition wanted me to be. To the degree that I found this profound and beautiful tradition of ours to be “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid,” it was not the Judaism of the Torah, the prophets, and the sages. I was not only licensed but commanded to help bring Judaism up to speed, as it were. It would take all of our best efforts to renew its vital message—but we had to acquire the right to do so through learning and observance. Judaism could only “save” me and others, as Kaplan put it, if it remained Judaism, the real thing rather than some ephemeral patchwork invented to serve the needs of the moment. But it also could not be authentic Judaism—relevant, vibrant, liberating, deep—if it remained exactly what it had been for centuries. It could not change lives and the world if it became, in Heschel’s words, “an heirloom rather than a living fountain.” It could not inspire people with wisdom and dedication by holding itself apart from the world around us.

2. Heschel and Kaplan, I realized, were transmitting a version of the Torah’s command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might.” “Mind” was included in the word translated as “heart;” what was true of love of God was certainly true of our relation to Torah: the teachings and lives that Jews have built over many centuries around the core of the Five Books of Moses. The point was that I had to bring all of my experience to bear on my life as a Jewish human being, and all I knew. I could not keep what I studied in high school or university locked up in one pocket, as it were, and my “faith” stored away in another, where nothing could touch it—and it could touch nothing in return.

No—all the history I learned at school, all the science, all the arts; Darwin and Einstein, Marx and Freud; democracy and pluralism, feminism and ecology—all of this was essential to the understanding and living of Torah. The point of this tradition of ours was to help change the world, after all, and it could not do that unless we understood that world in all its complexity. Biology and chemistry were needed. So were psychology and political science. Mind and heart. Women and men. Meditation and relationships. Love and courage. That’s why Heschel refused to blame modernity or Enlightenment for the decline of religion in the modern world. Science was not the enemy. It would take Jews learned in Judaism as well as in the sciences (and in every other profession and pursuit) to rebuild Jewish communities that were fully engaged both with their tradition and with the world. All of us were needed, and every part of us.

I love this about our tradition. Judaism is the very opposite of fundamentalism. Some believers in other faiths think you have to suspend the life of the mind in order to open the door to faith. Our Torah says exactly the opposite. Fundamentalists think scripture is so transparently clear it needs no interpretation. We know that the Torah is striving after truths so profound and difficult that it can only reach them with the aid of the interpretations we bring to the task, century after century. Some of our most fervent believers spend their days and evenings doing little except studying Talmud: learned arguments over what God wants from us. Scholarly study of the Bible has for many millions of modern Jews like me (including both Heschel and Kaplan) enhanced rather than undermined commitment to Judaism.

Look at the example of our sages two thousand years ago. The Passover Haggadah that they composed does not say: do this, read that, shut down your mind. It sets the symbols on the table in front of us, and invites us to gather around it, so that we can then discuss what those symbols mean, what our lives mean, what we should be doing in the world.

No fundamentalism here, that’s for sure. And no simple-minded atheism, confident that religious questions lost their relevance centuries ago. The God rejected by most of the atheists I meet is not the complex God I know (and cannot know): the God pictured in multifaceted ways in our scripture and our prayer books, so beyond human understanding that we are forbidden to make images of God, lest we mistakenly believe they are accurate; so complex that our tradition includes interpreters as diverse as Maimonides and Nachmanides, the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov, Heschel and Kaplan. You generally won’t find the sort of religion Judaism preaches portrayed accurately on TV or on Broadway or in the movies. It does not help matters for Jews that mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism are losing numbers in America today to fundamentalist and evangelical churches that do not approach issues of faith as we do—even if the latter churches, too, on closer examination, are far more complicated, less fundamentalist, than you would know from reading the newspapers. You have to get past media images of religion and of Judaism to get to the real thing. Some never make that effort.

Judaism, like most things of value in this world, including people, is best known up close, from the inside. That’s why we so treasure our friends and life partners. They know us the way only friends can: with the insight—including critical insight—that comes with trust, companionship and love. This is certainly true of Judaism, which is far more than a “religion” in the sense of a specified set of beliefs and rituals. This tradition wants all we are and can be, so that we can grow into complete human beings, wise and loving enough to find fulfillment, skilled and committed enough to make the world a better place than we found it.

3. That of course is the point of the Passover seder, and one of the principal purposes of Judaism. We tell and retell this narrative so that we carry on the story by our actions; we need to know that redemption happened once, and will happen again, so that we have the confidence and commitment to work for redemption. This takes all the knowledge and skill we can muster. It also takes the humility to recognize that, being human, we will make mistakes along the way—and the greater humility to realize that we are not thereby freed from trying to do better. We are needed, imperfect as we are. The blessings showered upon us are cause for celebration. Fill four cups to the brim, just as life should be full, and eat joyously at the seder surrounded by family and friends—for life is good. But blessings also occasion responsibility. That is why the needy are supposed to be invited to the table—and the seder’s very first words remind us that the “we” we utter and conceive must include many more people than our families and communities. “This year we are slaves. Next year may we be free.” All of us.

I find this lesson especially poignant and valuable as we Jews prepare, this Passover, to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Israel. A great blessing for Jews if ever there was one. An opportunity to infuse prophetic values into society and polity, economy and health care, rather than just to preach them as a tiny minority to a world over which we have relatively little influence. And—because we Jews are human, and possessed of real power for the first time in two millennia—a place where we fall short sometimes, achieve less than perfect justice, harm others while legitimately seeking to defend ourselves. There remains much to do in Israel—and much that can be done, even now, to bring redemption (which must include both justice and peace) closer.

Passover summons us to take our blessings, including Israel, and use them for good. “If we had only been taken out of Egypt, or given the Sabbath, or fed when we were hungry, dayyenu, it would have been enough for us.” But we have more, much more, and so have more to give. The point of the exercise is not guilt (so much food, when people are hungry) but responsibility (so much food, and people are hungry).

4. A college student sent me an email recently and wrote: “Jewish youth need to be brought into the conversation. Listen to us. Hear us. We are not the dull, inactive, and glazed generation that they always accuse us of being.” Right. Neither are you Jewish adults-in-training, valuable to your community, and needed by your tradition only for what you can do “when you grow up,” meaning when you “settle down,” marry, have kids. You are not valuable because you are conduits to the Jewish future but because you are you: individuals created in God’s image, Jewish human beings with hearts and souls and minds that are on fire with ideas and imaginings that can change this world, and us, for the good. We need you right now. We need you to learn enough to teach us—who are older, more experienced, and sometimes (but not always) wiser in some things. Find the Torah that you need. Build the communities that you need. Search for God using all your intellect and spirit. Get us to help you in ways that serve your strivings and not just ours.

I can’t remember a seder in which the depiction of the four children—wise, wicked, innocent, unable to ask a question—was not discussed and held up to criticism. The rabbis of old, I am convinced, included it with just this exercise in mind. They knew that our age-old tradition always requires a younger generation which challenges its elders, pushes them, criticizes them, and reaches beyond them – and does all this not only out of the inevitable ambivalence that besets relations among the generations, but from real love. The Torah must come to life again and again in each and every one of us, in each and every generation, so that it can be a source of life and blessing to the world. How else shall Judaism save us, and help us to save others?

May we all have much joy this Passover, as we share such thoughts with one another, the youngest answering at least four questions that the oldest have been asking since they were young and adding some honest questions of their own. May we go forth from the seder proud that this heritage is ours and determined to make it matter in the world. And may we all be blessed to return to the seder table next spring to thank God for another year of life and to report on what we have accomplished on the road to redemption.

Shabbat shalom ve-hag sameah.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.