Thursday, April 10, 2008

Celebrating Shattered Assumptions and New Visions

Here is the aggadata portion of the Shabbos haGadol derashah I expect to deliver this Shabbos. There's a lot more to be said about this concept, of course.

Celebrating Shattered Assumptions and New Visions
Shabbat haGadol 5768

Being a scholar in residence is a lot of fun, because you get to provoke, then leave a mess behind for the rabbi. On the other hand, there is an attractive side to inviting in someone to make a mess - it shakes things up, and makes people think.

Last Shabbos we had _________________ here, and in speaking about the role of the visual in Judaism he did create a few messes, but he also made people think.

For example: _____________ surprised people when he said that the Torah believes that idols have power, just less power than HaShem possesses. In truth, this is not at all clear-cut - the gemara records a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yosi haGelili on this point, and even Rabbi Yosi haGelili, who argues idols do have power, still believes that this power is assigned by HaShem. It’s an issue most people don’t contemplate much - but one worth thinking about, and so I'm glad he raised it in people’s minds.

And more than that: This sort of provocation, forcing us to think carefully about our preconceived notions, is more than just a messy exercise; it’s also one of the key ideas of Pesach night.

The first thing we teach our children about Pesach night is נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, this night is different from all other nights. We dip and we cover plates and we play Hide-and-Seek with matzah and we pick up cups and we play with Plague toys and we lean, all along making sure our children understand that this night is different.

Why? Why the emphasis on making this night different? Certainly, it provokes our children’s questions, but more than that, it’s because Pesach requires for us, as adults, that we break out of our assumptions about Gd, about our family, about the people around us, and establish a new identity.

Mistaken assumptions - about Gd, family and other people - brought us down to Mitzrayim in the first place:

Avraham was distraught, thinking his estate was destined for his servant Eliezer; Avraham believed, based on astrology, that he would not have a child. HaShem told Avraham, צא מאצטגנינות שלך, Get out of your astrology! Don’t you know what happens when you assume? I’m Gd, I can handle this! But Avraham stubbornly demanded proof that he would have descendants who would inherit Canaan, and so HaShem told him, ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם, Because you could not abandon your assumptions about Me, your children will have to be slaves in a foreign land, before they will acquire Israel.

Yosef presumed that his brothers were not righteous, and so when he saw them acting in a questionable manner he interpreted their actions in a negative light. He brought דבתם רעה, a bad report about them, to his father. His brothers reciprocated when they heard his dreams of personal glory; they assumed that just as Yaakov had appropriated the birthright from Esav, just as Yitzchak had won out at Yishmael’s expense, so Yosef was going to force them out of the Jewish family line. More assumptions, this time about family - and so we moved one step closer to slavery, as Yosef was sold down to Egypt.

A frightened Pharoah watched the Jews in his land multiply and spread. Paroh saw everything in terms of power struggles - whether the Jewish growth in Egypt, or Moshe’s demands for freedom, or the dry land in the middle of the Red Sea, everything was a threat to be conquered. And as focussed on power as he was, Paroh was certain that others shared this mentality, and so Paroh told his nation, הבה נתחכמה לו, Let’s outsmart those Jews. If we don’t act first, they are going to join our enemies, ונלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ, they’ll force us out of the land! More assumptions, this time about an entire nation of neighbors - and so Paroh enslaved the Jews, and so our slavery began.

People harbor assumptions because assumptions are comfortable. They enable us to go about our lives with a minimum of thought and a maximum of stability, ensconced in a self-perpetuating virtual reality which need not bear any resemblance to the “real world” in order for us to embrace the mirage.

But Pesach, at חודש האביב, the time when the world is reborn, shouts in our ear that there is a world of new ideas out there! Not everything that is new must be terrifying! New can mean stimulating, new can mean inspiring, new can clear away foolish presumption and make space for a new embrace of reality!

Look at Yetzias Mitzrayim itself, and see how the New did shatter old ideas and set the stage for redemption:

Paroh decreed that Jewish baby boys would be thrown in the river, so Amram and Yocheved split up, calculating that any children they might have would be doomed - but their daughter Miriam gave them a new narrative, convinced them to forego their ideas and reunite - and the result was the birth of Moshe!

Moshe believed that he, with his lisp, could not lead the Jews - but HaShem forced Moshe to look at the world differently, to forego his notions, and the result was nothing less than Yetzias Mitzrayim!

Standing at the edge of a mighty sea, the Jews trembled - but one man broke out of his assumptions, Nachshon ben Aminadav, and the result was a miraculous splitting of those mighty waters!

We, too, can break out of our Mitzrayim assumptions - the assumptions we make about the people around us, the misapprehensions we harbor about our families, the presumed truths we embrace about our lives and about Gd and about the universe!

Imagine if we would see our neighbors with open eyes, without the unhealthily cramped pigeonholes they regularly inhabit in our minds. Instead of identifying people by religious observance, age, background, and their associated stereotypes, we could open new vistas in our own associations by learning about people as they are.

Imagine if we would see family without the baggage of decades-old history, understanding the way they’ve grown, the way we’ve grown, since the time she made that offensive comment or he reneged on his promise. Blood really could be thicker than water, if only we would stop diluting it with our assumptions.

Imagine if we would accept, sincerely and intensely, the message of the Torah about the way we live our lives, opening ourselves to the possibility of real change, of shaping our lives around the message that has miraculously kept the Jewish people alive for so many millenia. As HaShem said, Avraham, Avraham! צא מן האצטגנינות שלך, get out from under your scientific assumptions about the way the universe works! Miracles can happen!

One night each year - two outside of Israel - we commit ourselves to the New, to the different, to embarking upon a journey of sound and sight and smell, of the mind as well as the body, of taste and texture and roleplaying. Of צא ולמד, Get out of your shell and learn! Of חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים, of A Jew must see himself as though he had left Egypt! And, yes, of נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות, of a night that is different from all other nights!

The Pesach Seder cries: Abandon the errors of the past, be a Miriam, a Moshe, a Nachshon - צא ולמד, embrace the miracle!

This last one, the miracle, is actually very hard for rabbis. Rabbis talk about Mashiach coming and putting us out of a job, but at the same time we plan for next week and next month and next year as though Mashiach were some distant dream.

But the Seder pulls us out of our routine. After the meal, toward the end of the Seder, we walk to the door and sing for Eliyahu, the herald of Mashiach promised by the prophet Malachi.

When we pull ourselves out of the regular, when we abandon our preconceived notions and learn a new script, then we will go to that door and look out with open eyes, with hopes and dreams, not rushing to get back to the table and finish up the Seder but scouting the streets for the fulfillment of that ultimate dream. When we, all of us, look out that way, we will see the fulfillment of next week’s haftorah, of הנה אנכי שולח לכם את אליה הנביא, of HaShem sending us Eliyahu haNavi, לפני בוא יום ה' הגדול והנורא, heralding that great day of HaShem.

1. On the question of idol-power, see Sanhedrin 90a, Avodah Zarah 55a, Devarim Rabbah 2:28 on Yisro and Rashi Megilah 25b re: Eigel
2. On Avraham being blamed for our descent to Mitzrayim, see Nedarim 32a
3. I believe it is the Pachad Yitzchak who talks about מצרים as mitzarim, boundaries...

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