Monday, September 21, 2009


Last year over the High Holy Days I spoke about Shabbat. This year I am thinking about Passover. Passover is by far my favorite Jewish holiday. We celebrate in such a tactile way, using all of our senses to celebrate. My favorite section of the Haggadah is the section that begins, “The Torah alludes to four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask.” Part of its charm is the memory it elicits. My father z”l would assign us to read the children we embodied. These children sit with us at our Seder, and we welcome their questions. We answer them according to the script of the Haggadah, and we move on to “Dayeinu,” and “Chad Gadya.”

The first child is the Chacham, the wise one. This child asks the details and minutia of the laws of Passover. The question comes directly from Deuteronomy 6:20, “What are the precepts, statutes, and laws that Adonai our God commanded you?” We are to answer that it is forbidden to conclude the afikomen after the Passover offering. This is a confusing answer. By reading through the Mishnah on the laws of Passover, creatively named Mishnah Pesachim, we find that this law is the very last law about conducting a Seder. Most haggadot take this to mean that we should explain every detail of the laws to this child—from the first to the last. Perhaps we should take a second look at the law itself. We do not conclude with the afikomen. Why not? Because Afikomen does not just mean dessert, it also means drunken revelry. We don’t end our Seder with debauchery, we end it with Hallel and Nirtzah—praising God and a declaration of acceptance of the Seder ritual. Studying the details of the laws of Pesach keeps the Chacham entertained, and reminds this child that there is always more to learn.

The next child is called Rasha, which is usually translated as “wicked.” This was my sister’s part at the Seder. The Rasha’s question is, “What is this service to you?” and we are to chastise this child because of the “to you” in the question. By putting the question in 2nd person, this child is thought to be separating from the community. The Haggadah instructs us to teach that child in first person in return, saying “This is what Adonai did for me when I came out of Egypt.” I have never really been satisfied with this answer. First, the understanding that a child can be wicked is disturbing. Children are simply mirrors of the world we present to them, so it is perhaps we who are wicked when a child challenges us. Second, hinging the child’s personality on the phrase “to you” is silly to the attentive reader. Second person is not unique to the Rasha’s question. The Chacham’s question ends, “that Adonai our God commanded you.” So perhaps this is not a wicked child, but a rebellious one. The Chacham wants to know the rules and follow them, while the Rasha needs to know the reasoning behind the rules. If we are offensive to them or rebuke them for questioning, we end up ostracizing them instead of welcoming them as participants at our table. The Rasha requires us to think carefully about our answers.

The next child is the simple child—the Tam. This is the role my father would assign to me. The Tam’s question during the Pesach Seder is just like the child’s name. It is a simple question. The tam asks, “Ma zot?” or “What is all this?” The Haggadah instructs the parent to tell this child, “With a mighty hand Adonai brought us out of Egypt.” It is a simple answer for a simple understanding. This answer explains the reasoning behind everything at the Seder, without any details or further explanation. The simple child can easily digest this answer, even though it holds within it the reasoning for everything we do at the Passover Seder. Worst case scenario, the Tam will say, “Ok,” and move on. At best, the answer will elicit more questions, and the Tam can start to have a serious conversation about the rituals we perform.

The fourth child is called Sh’eino Yode’a Lishol—The One Who Does Not Know To Ask. This child sits quietly at the table. Not a word is uttered about the Seder. No questions come to mind. So we explain to the Un-asking child, “This is what Adonai did for me when I came out of Egypt.” Sound familiar? This is exactly the script we are given for the Rasha! According to the Seder ritual, we are to answer the child who asks no question exactly the way we respond to the one the Rabbis called wicked! It is as if the Mishnaic Rabbis of the 5th Century formulated the popular dictum, “The only stupid question is the one that goes unasked.”

Most of our Haggadot would tell us to explain to the Unasking Child all the laws of Pesach from beginning to end. We assume that when no question is asked, there are too many questions to know what to ask first! So we explain everything. Eventually this child will know enough to ask a question.

Surely tonight, about halfway between last Pesach and next, the four children are still sitting among us. Even though we only talk about them on Passover, we deal with them every day. On the High Holy Days we tend to sit quietly (some of us not-so-quietly), read from the machzor, and listen to the music. We don’t often ask questions or encourage questions from our children. This year we should do just that. Let’s think about what the four children might be asking on the High Holy Days.

The Chacham asks about all the precepts, laws, and statutes about the Days of Awe. Our challenge is the same as it was on Pesach. We try to keep this child engaged. Perhaps we would answer with the opening of Tractate Yoma:
“Seven days before Yom Kippur, the High Priest goes from his home to [a special location]….”

Yoma is the tractate of the Talmud that deals with the rituals of the High Holy Days. This suggests a different approach than our answer to this child on Pesach, with hopefully the same result. Instead of citing the very last law of Yom Kippur, we cite the first. Perhaps this will inspire the Chacham to study the Talmud. By starting at the beginning of the tractate, we can illustrate the myriad of opinions that emanate from it. The Talmud is not a list of rules, it is a discussion among rabbis who lived over generations. The Talmud reminds us that knowing the laws is not enough. We must discuss, question, and debate. This particular law also reminds us that the High Holy Days are not about getting to the end, they are about the process of repentance. This process does not begin on Yom Kippur or even seven or ten days before. We begin on the first of Elul, a month ago tonight. If the High Priest, the most respected figure in Ancient Jewish practice, had to spend a week in solitude preparing for Yom Kippur, how much more important is it for us to spend time reflecting?

The Rasha is probably the one who leaves Rosh Hashanah services right as the sermon starts. While they are here, they might ask, “What is the meaning of this service to you?” Instead of rebuking the child, we can think about what this child might really be asking. Maybe the question points to the service itself, as in “why do we have to sit through all this stuff?” Show the rebellious child the readings in the front of the Gates of Repentance. Explain that there are a great many ways to think about this holiday. Maybe this child is challenging our own views on the High Holy Days. If this is the case, accept the Rasha’s challenge. Think about what the High Holy Days mean. How do we react to the concept of Tshuva? What bits of wickedness do we have within us that we would strive to turn around for the better?

Tonight the Tam is asking “Ma zot?” What is this? The simple child seems to have a sense of wonder. This child might be overcome by our beautiful sanctuary, by the drama of opening the ark as the clergy enter to lead us in prayer, by the powerful music emanating form the organ and the cantor. Perhaps the Tam does not have the vocabulary to ask deeper questions about our rituals, but at least a question is asked. Our answer to the Tam could be: Avinu malkeinu choneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim. Avinu Makeinu, have compassion and answer us, for we have little merit. This answer evokes deep emotion from us, and its layers of meaning allow for more questions. Why do we sing it so many times? Why is God a parent and ruler? Why don’t we deserve forgiveness?

The answer is also simple. The Days of Awe are about asking forgiveness. In the words of Rabbi Akiva, “Everything else is commentary.” The architecture of the sanctuary, the music, the liturgy, everything else is an attempt to enhance the experience. The tam reminds us to focus on the basic meaning of High Holy Days.

The Sh’eino Yodea Lishol might be here with us tonight too. Be careful. The Unasking child is not the one sitting quietly and following along in the machzor. The Unasking is here, but not present. This is the person texting through services or playing a video game, blissfully ignorant to the fact that we on the bimah can see everything that happens in the congregation.

The un-asking child is not the child who does not know how to ask questions or which questions to ask, it is the child who does not even know to ask. Think of the four children as four generations of Jewish men. The Chacham is the one who is active in the synagogue, participates in programs, is a Chai donor, goes to every Shabbat he can. The Rasha is then the one who rejects synagogue life, thinking dad’s interest in this stuff is irrelevant. Being Jewish is enough to him. Doing Jewish, not so much. Jewish learning? Out of the question. He no longer comes here unless he is dragged in by his family, and he complains about it before, during, and after. His son the Tam learns from his example. The Tam comes to believe that the rituals and practices of Jewish life are “just for grandpa.” Maybe he comes to services on the High Holy Days, but not if it’s on a school night or if he has soccer practice. So he grows up with no vocabulary for Jewish life, no real exposure to Jewish rituals. His son, therefore, is the Sh’eino Yodea Lishol. He has been taught by his father the Tam and his grandfather the Rasha that there are more important things to do than engage in Jewish life. He has absolutely no exposure to the synagogue, never sets foot in that door. He has no questions because he has nothing to question.

That is exactly why we must take the Unasking child under our wing and teach him everything we can. We start with apples and honey to lure him back to us with their sweetness and the prospect of a sweet new year. We talk about the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, how exciting it is to be a part of a community that gets to celebrate together. We listen together to the sound of the shofar, the wail that awakens our soul every year at this time. We discuss repentance and the need to say we’re sorry.

Clearly we would all like to be the Chacham. We want to be thought of as intelligent, knowledgeable about our customs and wise enough to know how to apply them. Sometimes we do all emulate the Chacham. We have a little of each of the four children in us. We are wise at times, rebellious at others. We occasionally need to take information in its simple form, and sometimes we are completely ignorant.

Just before we read about the four children in our Passover Haggadah we say this blessing: Baruch Hamakom; Baruch Hu; Baruch Shenatan Torah le’amo Yisrael; Baruch Hu. Blessed is Source of Life, Blessed is the One; Blessed is the Giver of Torah to the people Israel; Blessed is the One. In the first century CE, around the time the Passover rituals were being developed, this four-part blessing was commonly used to introduce Torah study. Since the inspiration for the story of the four children comes from the Torah, it makes sense to recite such a blessing at this point in the Passover Seder. But something stands out about this particular blessing. Every line begins with the word Baruch, or blessed. Four times we repeat the word Baruch just before we discuss the four children. Implicit here is the understanding that every type of child—wise, wicked, simple, and un-asking—is a blessing. We are thankful to have all four children at our tables and in the sanctuary. We are proud to be a community made of all kinds of different personalities.

Temple Sinai’s leadership has spent quite a bit of time lately discussing how we might engage each of these different personalities. We have discovered that in general if someone thinks, “I don’t know anything about X or Y,” that person will is not likely to come to the synagogue to find out, at risk of being thought of as ignorant. Or perhaps that person just does not know everything that Temple Sinai has to offer.

In our endeavor to engage all the varied personalities in our community, Temple Sinai offers plenty of ways to stay connected. We offer something for each of the four children within us.

We have spent the last month thinking about the past year and how we can improve ourselves. The whole month of Elul we get ready for the High Holy Days. Every day for the last month Rabbi Litwak has sent out an Elul thought. We have been able to read thoughts from many of you Chachamim here tonight. We have read your thoughts about health and healing, family and friends, summers at camp and Chanukah at college. Our Elul thoughts are a way to share ideas across the range of experiences represented by our partners. To see all of our Elul thoughts, go to our web site, as you can see conveniently written on your program.

The four children within us have a wide range of opportunities to engage with our community in learning. Our energetic Ruach and Torah Study 101 groups meet every Saturday morning. Ruach gathers in the library for a little breakfast and lively discussion and questioning about the weekly Torah portion. Torah Study 101 meets in Rabbi Litwak’s study, where we take a simple, story by story look at the entire Torah. We have been on this track for a year now, and we’re barely halfway through Genesis.

Every other Thursday we offer simple tastes of Talmud in Rabbi Litwak’s study. No prior knowledge is required for any of these classes, just a sense of wonder and a desire to learn.

The best way to find out what works for you is to try a little of everything. We have learning opportunities at Temple Sinai on a regular basis, including our amazing discussion about Israel last week with Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, and our discussion this coming December with a Palestinian and an Israeli from the organization Seeds of Peace. Rabbi David Saperstein will join us in January as Scholar-in-Residence, and this coming Wednesday is the last of our four Log-in Lunch and Learn sessions. For our learners who are actually children we are offering a new Sinai Chai this year for 7th and 8th graders, and we are participating in Melton’s Communiteen at the JCC for high school students.

For details on any of these programs, all you have to do is ask a question. Or better yet, call or email to let us know what you are questioning. What do you want to learn about? How can we help connect you to other like-minded partners? Remember, we work for you. We will do our best to put together what interests you.

The High Holy season gives us a chance to improve ourselves. The only way to do that is through learning. Jewish learning is not about facts and figures. It is about connecting. Or in the words of the 20th Century scholar Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, “When I pray I speak to God. When I study God speaks to me.”

May we all stay connected throughout 5770. May we acknowledge the different children around us and within us. May we keep them actively engaged in life at Temple Sinai and the Jewish community around us.

Shanah Tovah.

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