Thursday, April 02, 2015

galus Mitzrayim and the seder story as a lesson in emunah

It is a very hard week… too much to do all around, little time to think, less time to write. 

According to one view in Chazal (see this post) galus Mitzrayim was a punishment for Avraham questioning G-d, “Ba’meh eidah ki irashena?” On Avraham Avinu’s level (which I for one have no way of relating to), this question showed a lack in emunah.  Galus Mitzrayim and all other galiyos (which are just snifim of that original galus which got cut short and had to be made up elsewhere) are not a punishment in the way think of punishment, but, as the Shem m’Shmuel explains (and the Maharal before him in Gevuros Hashem ch. 9), are a tikun.  They serve as way for us to exercise and learn emunah.  The way we do that is by remaining steadfast in our trust in Hashem even in the face of Pharoah doing horrible things or President Hussein’s animus toward Jews, b’chol dor v’dor omdim aleinu…, proving that our emunah has no defect – whatever Avraham was lacking has been made up for and overcome. As R’ Eliezer Eisenberg explains in his post here, the leil haseder is not a history lesson – it’s an emunah lesson.

If that is what the holiday is all about, we sure have a strange way of celebrating. If Avraham erred by questioning G-d, then wouldn’t it make sense on this night more than any other night to hold all questions? Wouldn’t it make sense to just sit back and talk about the idea of “emunah peshutah” with no questions allowed? Yet we do exactly the opposite! The mitzvah of sipur yetzi’as Mitzrayim, as opposed to zechiras yetzi’as Mitzrayim that we do every day, can be fulfilled, as R’ Chaim explains, *only* by asking questions. In every haggdah it says “v’kan ha’ben shoe les aviv…” At every seder one of the highlights is “mah nishtanah.” What’s going on?

Maybe the answer is that what the Torah is telling us is that emunah does not mean not having questions – emunah means believing despite having questions. 

The Torah knows that just telling someone not to read that, not to think about that, not to ask that, doesn’t work. I find it impossible to imagine that anyone who heard about the tragedy of the children who perished in a fire last week in Brooklyn was not bothered by what happened and did not have questions. Is it heretical to ask how G-d could do such a thing? I don’t think so. It’s heretical only to conclude that there is no Divine justice just because at the end of the day we may have no answers.

Perhaps another approach, one that I think occurred to me because I am in aveilus this year, is that the difference between Avraham’s question and our questions is in the last two words of the phrase “kan ha’beh shoel *es aviv*…” Avraham Avinu was fortunate to be the first member of Klal Yisrael, the first Jew, but as such, he had no one to whom he could turn to for advice or help (see Kedushas Levi at the end of Lech Lecha). There was no one whom Avraham could ask. Questions are dangerous only when there is no one to talk to about them. When they are part of an ongoing dialogue between parents and children, even if, as in the case of the ben ha’rasha, that dialogue maybe contentious, questions can be defused and they lose much of their force.  

Speaking of the ben ha’rasha, it’s worth noting that it’s the only group of chilren which the Torah speaks about in the plural, “v’haya ki yomru aleichem bneichem.” The Torah is realistic. The vast majority of our brethren out there are not interested in Torah and mitzvos; they dismiss our beliefs as fanatical. Despite all the trouble they cause, when the Torah describes Bnei Yisrael being told of these children, the reaction is one of thanksgiving, “Vayikod ha’am vayishtachavu.” Even as we respond with “hakhey es shinav,” the language is, “v’amartem” – not dibbur, lashon kashah, but rather amirah, lashon rakah. The very fact that the Torah records the question of the ben rasha, writes the Shem m’Shmuel, testifies to the possibility of his being rehabilitated. Why waste words on meaningless questions that a response to does no good? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains our response to the rasha as follows: “ilu haya sham…,” had he been there, in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed; but he is not there – he is here, with us, post-mattan Torah, post that transformative experience of standing at Sinai that permanently stamped on every Jewish soul the potential for return.

Aside from giving the rasha hope, I think the Torah is giving us parents chizuk as well. What parent has not felt at one time or another that his/her children are ignoring their good advice, acting against their own best interests, and in general, headed down the wrong path? If as the Shem m’Shmuel argues, the parsha of the ben rasha teaches us that this child is never completely lost, because otherwise the Torah would not waste words discussing him, it also teaches us that the words of the parent of the ben rasha are not for naught either, as the Torah would not waste time telling us how to respond if whatever we say made no difference. 

R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that Avraham was bothered by “bameh eidah” because he perceived that this optimistic promise of Jewish destiny contradicted the idea of bechira chofshis. How can there be a guarantee of a bright Jewish future when we have the right to exercise our own free and often bad judgment? Perhaps it’s specifically this parsha of the ben ha’rasha that responds to Avraham’s question. The reason the rasha is a rasha is because he has exercised his bechira and made bad choices. Nonetheless, at least the way these meforshim approach the parsha, the Torah still believes him. Ila haya sham lo haya nigal, but in the future geulah, he will be redeemed. The seder is a lesson in emunah – it shows the Torah’s belief in the potential in each and every Jew. The ball is in our court to respond in kind.


  1. Great post. Your mother in law was very, very impressed with this post and the next day's post. :-)

    On the questions and emunah, see the Maharal cited in

  2. The thing with the internet is the expectation of superficiality. I admit that I skimmed this before Pesach and missed most of what you were saying. When I saw RYGB's encomium, I read it slowly and carefully. On the second reading I realized that it is replete with excellent ideas. Yasher Koach.