Thursday, April 14, 2016

We do not rely on miracles (Derashah, pre-Pesach 5776)

21st century science proclaims that human beings are actually hard-wired to believe in Hashem. Or as a headline in the on-line journal Science 2.0 put it, “Scientists Discover that Atheists Might Not Exist”. Of course, people might come to doubt Gd for a variety of reasons and due to a range of experiences, but developmental psychology, neuropsychology and evolutionary biology argue that by default, we are believers. In other words: As described gloriously in Shir haShirim, Man pursues Gd! It is in the nature of man to believe in, to yearn to believe in, a Refereed universe.

It is axiomatic that Judaism encourages us to nurture and nourish this native emunah, practicing it out of choice rather than mere biological compulsion. We dedicate two out of our three regalim to highlighting the heights our emunah can achieve:
• On Succos, we enter the Succah to celebrate לכתך אחרי במדבר, the way in which our ancestors followed HaShem in the wilderness, on faith.
• On Shavuos, we celebrate both the emunah of the farmer who sacrifices the year’s first produce, and the emunah of the Jews at Sinai who declared נעשה ונשמע, “We will do whatever You say!”

But the attraction to emunah can be a Trojan Horse, concealing two subtle risks:
• First: The risk that we will look for Gd in foreign places, as did the generation of Enosh and the creators of the Golden Calf, as well as generations of young Jews who have hiked the Himalayas in search of that Gd. To borrow from Voltaire: if we fail to find Gd, we might resort to inventing Him.
• And then there is a second risk: that human beings who believe in a Divine Overseer will rely fully on this Overseer, failing to value that which humanity can and must achieve on its own behalf.

Pesach comes to neutralize the risks of our natural faith. The narrative of Pesach addresses the first challenge by testifying that Gd, and only Gd, is Creator and Manipulator of our world. And the narrative of Pesach addresses the second challenge, too, by proclaiming that our liberty from Egyptian bondage was achieved not solely through the אני ולא מלאך intervention of Gd, but also through the activism of the human being:
• The dauntless persistence of our formidable ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, and who did not give up but instead retained their identity as descendants of Avraham and Sarah;
• The energy of נשים צדקניות, superlatively righteous women who kept their families going despite Egyptian slavery, and in whose merit, Chazal say, we were rescued from Egypt;
• The obstinacy of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam, who refused to be intimidated by Pharaoh and the Egyptians;
• And the fearlessness of brave ancestors who, in the midst of idolatrous Egypt, slaughtered the representative of the lamb-god for the korban Pesach.
This emphasis on human action is a central lesson of Pesach: We believe in miracles, and we celebrate miracles, but we also celebrate עם ישראל, Jewish peoplehood and Jewish action, on this Yom Tov.

Of course, this emphasis on human action is not explicit in the Haggadah; the Haggadah is overtly and rightly devoted to the Gd of אני ולא מלאך, even downplaying the actions of Moshe Rabbeinu. Nonetheless, the emphasis on human endeavour is embedded in a central mitzvah of Pesach night, ושמרתם את המצות – the practice of using matzah shemurah, guarded matzah.

We use Seder matzah which has been guarded by Jews with the mitzvah in mind (Pesachim 38a-b)  – not only because we are afraid that the dough might become chametz, but because a critical component of the process of making matzah, a crucial third ingredient alongside wheat and water, is the presence of a Jew who is striving to fulfill the mitzvah of his Creator. For this reason, it is insufficient to use closed-circuit monitoring of the grain; it is insufficient to have a Jew watch a non-Jew process the flour. A Jew must personally grind, sift, mix and knead the flour, all the while maintaining his intent to create matzah for the mitzvah. [We will need to discuss "machine shemurah" another time...]

Why do we insist on Jewish involvement and concentration in crafting our Seder matzah? Rabbeinu Asher (Rosh Pesachim 2:26) explained that it’s because the Torah describes matzah as לחם עוני, which the Sages translate as bread of poverty, like the bread our enslaved ancestors ate. As the gemara says, when paupers want bread, they make it personally – and so Rabbeinu Asher wrote, בעלי מעשה וחסידים ותמימים מחמירין על עצמן כגאונים המחמירין ולשין ואופין בעצמן, that people of great deeds and great piety make sure to knead and bake the matzah themselves. And even for those of us who do not bake the seder matzah personally, we still require that a Jew make it, remembering and emulating our impoverished and enslaved ancestors on a night which is simultaneously dedicated to mimicking royalty.

As science has discovered, and as celebrated on Shavuos and Succos, the human being naturally pursues the Divine Overseer. But Pesach plays a balancing role, first by making certain that our religious search is directed toward Gd, and second by reminding us that our liberty came about with the help and merit of human effort. This is the message of matzah shemurah, which we must create by investing labour and intent.

Perhaps we should take that recognition of human effort a step further at our Seder, beyond matzah shemurah.
• Perhaps, without taking anything away from the Haggadah’s central motif of Divine miracles, we could still pause when we read ויתנו עלינו עבודה קשה, about the hard labour, to honour the generations of slaves who persisted in identifying as Jews;
• When we read ואת עמלנו – אלו הבנים, about the struggle of producing children in Egypt, we could pause for הכרת הטוב, gratitude to those נשים צדקניות who birthed, nurtured and raised Jewish children in the face of hopelessness;
• When we read אני ולא מלאך, the declaration that HaShem took us out personally and single-handedly, we could state, as the Tosafos Rid notes, that Moshe courageously and stubbornly brought the Divine message to Pharaoh, despite the Pharaoh’s threats in response;
• And when we read ואמרתם זבח פסח הוא לד', about the mitzvah of korban pesach, we could discuss what it took for a Jew in Egypt to tie up a lamb on the 10th of Nisan and identify it as a sacrifice for HaShem, and whether we would have the strength to buck our society in that way.

And even beyond Pesach, we should recognize the value of that human activism in the Liberty achieved in our own era. Our national return to Israel is surely a Divine miracle, but the Jews who suffered to earn it, the mothers who struggled to raise Jewish children, the leaders who practiced shuttle diplomacy, the visionaries who challenged the international political status quo – to their activism we owe a great הכרת הטוב, and a recognition that this is what Hashem has empowered us to achieve.

The early Greek philosopher Protagoras declared that Man is the measure of all things, but we don’t agree. On the other hand, we also don’t believe solely in the humble half-passage from Tehillim, מה אנוש כי תזכרנו “What is man that Thou art mindful of him.” Rather, we believe in the entire sentence from Tehillim, and its concluding promise of human potential: ותחסרהו מעט מאלקים, “You, Gd, have made us but a little lower than the angels.”

HaShem has crowned humanity with the opportunity to make our own shmurah matzah, to bring our own korban pesach, to effect our own miracles, and so to achieve glory and greatness. This Pesach, may we recognize the ways in which our ancestors did this, and may we answer the Divine call to use our Liberty to do the same.


  1. Chag kasher v'sameach, Rabbi.

  2. Thanks, and for you too. I have another item for Pesach, but it will publish on chol hamoed rather than before Yom Tov; it's a bit depressing for before Yom Tov...