Last Friday night, amidst the charades, spilled grape juice, and joyful chaos that is seder with toddlers, the group of us gathered managed to have one relatively grown up conversation. It was, rather ironically, about the Four Children. The Haggadah reads: "The Torah alludes to Four Children: One wise, One wicked, One simple and One who doesn't know how to ask." At our seder, we were each prompted to reflect on the roles we play in our families of origin relative to the archetypal children presented in the Haggadah.
On some level we all resisted categorization until the resident psychologist at the table led us through a conversation about internal family systems. Then we took a closer look at text of the Haggadah and saw with renewed clarity that in fact the wise child and the wicked child ask essentially the same question: What does this ritual (and its rules and laws) mean to you? One question ends with lachem/לכם and the other etchem/אתכם. In both questions the child is asking their grown up what this means to them. The distinction really comes in the parental response, which supposes a difference of tone or intention. The wise one is heard as precocious and curious, and the parent wants to teach them. And the wicked one is heard as judgmental or alienated, and the parent is shaming.
In different moments in my life, I find myself feeling more or less like both the wicked and the wise child. Sometimes it is about how I approach a situation and sometimes it is about what is projected on to me. Sometimes I want to be one or the other, and sometimes I feel stuck in a bad pattern. Because we know for sure that these paradigms are not value-neutral. To be the wise one is to be identified with the rabbis of old, the sages of Jewish tradition, the authors of the Haggadah itself. To be the wise one is to be seen as a source of authority. But then again, as we learn in Pirkei Avot,
"Who is wise? One who learns from everyone."
As we enter the final day(s) of Passover, may we linger in the seder's teachings. May we be inspired to extend kindness and compassion to the many children in our lives and to ourselves for the genuinely curious, imperfect questions we ask.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
In just one week, many of us will find ourselves sitting around a seder table reading from our respective haggadot. In one way or another, we will all be fulfilling our obligation to telling the Passover story. At the very beginning of a traditional Haggadah we are told "All that extend the Exodus story are praiseworthy--Harei zeh meshubach." Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch (15th c. law code) tells us that we should speak about it all night – "until sleep overtakes us" (OC 481:2). I don't know about you, but there is no way for it to take me all night to read through my haggadah. So what is really intended by this instruction?
I think the answer comes later in the haggadah, when we say, "In every generation each of us must see ourselves as if we have personally gone out of Egypt." We are called to extend the story to our time, to our lives. We are not separate from this retelling. The Sefat Emet explains that when the Torah says, "You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day (be'etsem hayom) I brought you out of mitzrayim," what it really means is be'atsmo (from within yourself) you came out of a narrow place. What story is uniquely yours to tell this year, be'atsmo, from your own experience?
In truth, the Haggadah is, was, and will be a still life, an imperfect prompt for our own searching. And the rabbis knew this to be true. Take for example the fact that in the Torah women are central to the Exodus story. From the midwives who save the Hebrew babies to the prophet Miriam and her wandering well. And yet women are absent from the Haggadah. We learn in the Talmud, Rav Avira teaches, "In the merit of righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt." While women may be absent from the pages of our haggadah, here is Rav Avira giving full credit to women for the redemption of the entire Jewish people of that generation. What was it that they did that merited God's saving hand in Egypt?
Get a load of this midrash, as retold by Rabbi Avi Strausberg. "Rav Avira explains in the continuation of that passage that at that time, the men, backs broken from oppressive labor, would come home defeated and tired. One can imagine that in situations of such desperation, the focus would be on surviving in the now rather than looking to producing future generations. But, the women were able to look toward the future. They'd go to the river and come away with pots filled with water and fish. They'd bathe their husbands, rub them with oils, feed them the fish and ultimately through their loving, rejuvenating actions, these couples would come to have sex, and the women would become pregnant. Once pregnant, these strong women would continue to take matters into their own hands. When it came time to give birth, they would give birth under the apple tree, and the Holy One would join them, sending a midwife to care for the newborn. These babies were resilient like their parents. When the Egyptians would come for them, a miracle would occur, the earth would absorb them, holding them safe until the threat had passed. They would then emerge from the ground, like grass of the field. As they grew, they would return home, like flocks of sheep, healthy, numerous and whole.”
Wow, now that’s a story! While the editors of the haggadah may not have seen fit to include these stories of feminist resilience, it is on us to give these women, and ourselves, the proper place in the Passover story. To tell the story of our going out from a narrow place all night, until sleep overtakes us.
As you prepare for Passover, may you search out not only your chametz, but also your personal Exodus story, which is praiseworthy to tell.
Rabbi Ari Lev
This Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, marking the new moon of Nissan and announcing the Passover is approaching. Tomorrow morning Jews around the world, including us right here in West Philly, will be singing a bonus set of songs known as Hallel. Hallel, comprising Psalms 113-118, is a collection of psalms of celebration, recited on joyous occasions including Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Hanukkah. It is also included in the Passover seder, where it is divided into two parts that surround the meal. Notably for tomorrow, on Rosh Hodesh and the last six days of Passover, a partial "Hatzi Hallel" is recited omitting the first half of psalm 115 and psalm 116.
The connection between Hallel and Passover is not incidental. For starters, we recite Hallel on Passover and at Seder. And Psalm 114 begins by declaring, "B'zeit yisrael...When Israel went out from Egypt." But it goes deeper than that. The psalms of Hallel draw on the theme of exodus as a metaphor for celebratory moments, both moments of leaving behind oppression and also moments of overcoming personal or communal struggle. And verses from these psalms, like Ozi v'Zimrat Yah, also appear liturgically in key moments like the Song at the Sea. Through spirited song, Hallel invites us to imagine a world of freedom and renewal.
In just two weeks we will read in the Haggadah that each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we personally went out from a narrow place. This is not just a story we remember, but a sacred practice we embody. And tomorrow is our warm up.
Tomorrow when we recite Hallel, I will invite everyone to rise in body or spirit. And while this may seem incidental, it speaks to how the rabbis understood the power of these psalms.
"The Sages taught: Who initially recited Hallel?
Rabbi Eliezer says: Moses and the Jewish people recited it when they stood by the sea...
Rabbi Yehuda says: Joshua and the Jewish people recited it when they defeated the kings of Canaan who stood against them...
Rabbi Yosi HaGelili says: Mordecai and Esther recited it when the wicked Haman stood against them..." (B.T. Pesachim 117a)
The list goes on and on.
As I have learned from my preschooler, according to the rabbis, Hallel is about being an upstander. The Talmud continues, "And the Rabbis say that Hallel was not established for any specific event, but the Prophets among them instituted that the Jewish people should recite it on every appropriate occasion, and for every trouble, may it not come upon them. When they are redeemed, they recite it over their redemption."
Hallel is both an affirmation of the world as it is and the world as it could be. It calls us to remember the moments when our people took a stand. And it invites us to do the same in our time. Hallel is an extra boost of faith and joy that propels us to believe that the renewal of the new moon ushers in the renewal in our own lives.
כן יהי רצון
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.