Author Archives: Rabbi Marc Wolf

Rabbi Marc Wolf

About Rabbi Marc Wolf

Rabbi Marc Wolf is assistant vice-chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary

The Wicked Child

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

I have always been puzzled by the questions of the four children at the seder. Often, we gloss over them to get to the famed Hillel sandwich, pausing only to recognize the pedagogic missteps in providing answers to the four inquisitors; however, this year I am particularly struck by the question of the wicked child who asks, What is this service to you?

This seemingly brazen question smacks with spite and makes me think back to younger days in shul when I just did not have the perseverance to sit still through the rabbi’s sermon, and I would lash out at my parents questioning the very relevance of the service.

An Indictment

But, I believe the question of the wicked child is even more of an indictment than the complaint of a restless child in shul. The term we use for our service of God is the same word as the service of a slave–avodah.

wicked childThe wicked child, then, is questioning the relevance of our current avodah. She believes that religion is about spirituality, faith, and cleaving to the Divine, yet this is absent in the intricacies of the laws of Judaism. We replace our labor in Egypt with an observance just as vacuous. Here we stand on the other side of the Red Sea, which miraculously split before us, and our observance does not reflect the wonder and radical amazement that would be consistent with our experience.

Viewing her question in this way, the wicked child forces us to face the problem of the tension between observance and passion. The angst she expresses is targeted at a religion in which practice is without passion, action without intention.

Action vs. Intention

This tension is manifest within our tradition. Rabbeinu Asher, a French Talmudist and halakhist [Jewish law expert] in the 14th century, commenting on the laws of prayer in the legal compendium known as the Tur, wrote that if we recite a blessing without any intention, we still fulfill our obligation to recite that blessing; however, shortly afterward, he rules the exact opposite with regard to hearing a blessing recited by the cantor, stating that our inner dialogue does have decisive importance and that it can prevent us from fulfilling our obligations.

Jewish Texts: The Ultimate Self-Help Guide

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

A colleague and friend who shares my fascination with golf as well as my plague of performing poorly, recently gifted me with a book entitled, Golf is Not a Game of Perfect.

It is another one of the ever-expanding genre of self-help books in sheep’s clothing in which the subject, in this case, golf, is viewed as a microcosm of life. Accordingly, the sport is given a philosophical reach that outdistances any drive from the tee. It is filled with pithy moral teachings such as “Golfers must learn to love the challenge when they hit a ball into the rough … the alternatives–anger, fear, whining, and cheating–do no good.” Through tangible advice on the game, it subtly links such challenges as hitting a 40-foot putt to reaching for personal and professional goals. Books like this one and others of this ilk by sports personalities like George Forman and Michael Jordan tend to see an ecumenical relevance in seemingly mundane activities.

Our culture is filled with such moral tomes. And while I am sure I can learn a lot from George Forman’s lesson of picking yourself up off the canvas when you’re down, the aisles of Barnes and Noble are not necessarily the first place we should go in search of ethical teachings. There is much our own tradition teaches us about living life morally, beyond our expected ritual obligations.

self-help guides

The gift of Judaism is that within the nuanced discussions of ritual obligations, moral lessons emerge. They are, in fact, inextricably connected and should be viewed as a whole–each dependent on and enhancing the other. In the latter half of our parashah this week, after the famous earthly consumption of Korah and his followers, the focus shifts to the laws, rights, and obligations of the priestly class. Their ritual obligation is to perform the sacrifices and engage in holy activities of the Temple–work that is replete with measurement and detail, and seemingly devoid of moral lesson.

However, we read in Number 18:7, “I make your service a service of a gift … ” This gift can be given either by the priests to God or by God to the priests. The giver and receiver are ambiguous. Reading ritual obligations as a gift to God seems itself a bit contradictory, and many medieval commentators attempted to rectify this seeming contradiction. For example, Rashi and Ramban, in an unusual instance of concurrence, define the gift that God has given to the Jewish people as the priesthood. This view is also expressed by the commentators Ibn Ezra and Sforno.

This is not the case, however, when we reach the commentary of the Zaddik Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (circa:1740-1810). In his commentary, Kedushat Levi (p. 311 Mesamchei Lev ed.), he states, “When we serve God, it is not a gift, because it is our obligation. However, when we work to return the Divine sparks to God, this is the gift we give to God. Applying a concept that originated with gnostics in the early part of this century and continued with some early kabbalists, Levi Yitzhak believed that there was a service we could perform in addition to ritual responsibilities, which would return the fragments of God in exile in our world to the Godly realm. Continuing, he says this higher service is our responsibility to act ethically in business. His definition of the verse as a gift we give to God extends ritual law to include a moral dimension. Thus, avodah, service of God, can be simple ritual observance without any moral dimension, or, when the ethical dimension is included, our service becomes a gift to God.

This concept is supported by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) in his Nineteen Letters. In letter 14, (p.88: Feldheim trans.), Hirsch defines avodah as “striving to regain the eternal values of life if we should have lost sight of them through the deceptions, errors, conflicts and temptations of living.” He adds, “Our sages call true devotion avodat ha-lev–the service of the heart; that is, the fulfillment of God’s will toward our own inner person by purifying and ennobling our character.”

Rabbi Hirsch’s service is truly more than ritual observance and contains elements that are consonant with tikkun olam, repair of the world, also incorporated in Levi Yitzhak’s definition.

Maimonides, in The Guide for the Perplexed, (3:32) talks about the deeper meaning of sacrifices and asserts that if the ritual detail is of paramount importance to the avodah, then there would be more leniency about where they can be held instead of restricting them to the Temple. Thus, there must be a more profound meaning imparted to the sacrifices. Moreover, he adds, the prophets–the champions of ethics and morality–frequently spoke out against observing ritual law that does not include a corresponding moral code.

All this is to say that rather than consult the self-help aisles of the local book store, our religion can serve as a moral and ethical compass. Our commentators bring law and ritual to life and instill it with a meaning relevant to our daily lives. Looking within our tradition for inherent moral structure will provide guidance with context and depth that is relevant to us as Jews–it just may be a little more challenging to find our moral guidance here than in a book by Michael Jordan.

Our challenge, then, is to approach our tradition and discover the morals behind what may appear to be outdated and irrelevant ritual detail. To quote a popular statement from Pirkei Avot, “turn it over and over, everything is contained within it.”

Our tradition is living and evolving, the challenge of relevance is yours, and the next time you’re playing golf, remember sometimes a sand trap is just a sand trap.

The Dutiful Student

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Reenacting an historical moment through liturgy and deed is a forte of Judaism. Our calendar year overflows with holidays and observances that transport us to our former days and inspire us to reenter the narrative and relive salient moments of history. This week in particular, observing the 9th of Av, we read of the destruction of the Temple and continue the mourning of our ancestors for the calamities that befell them.

While it is possible to read this narrative as a preventive measure to ensure that we, too, do not fall victims to George Santayana’s dictum condemning us to either learn from our history or repeat it, I believe that Judaism’s message is a blessing, not a curse. It is a blessing for us to be able to relive life’s difficult moments–and the reason why can be gleaned from Moses‘ behavior and our parasha this week.

Isaiah Horowitz, commenting on this week’s parashah, Va’et’hanan, asserts that throughout the parshiyot of D’varim, we are constantly encouraged to learn and relearn the mitzvot of the Torah. The common name of Deuteronomy itself, the Mishneh Torah, means a second retelling of what came before in the previous four books. Each subject of the Torah is rehashed within the pages of Deuteronomy, according to Horowitz, and each is a call to action to study the passages to our fullest comprehension. For inspiration, Horowitz patterns Moses as the quintessential student, constantly questioning the pedagogical message of God.

By citing and expanding on a midrash from Yalkut Shemoni [a Bible commentary compiled in the 13th century], Horowitz enumerates the four times that Moses, as the student of God, did not fully comprehend God’s message and requested clarification of God’s objectives. The first of these occurs after Moses’ divine election as prophet for the people at the burning bush. He faithfully transmits God’s message to Pharaoh and the midrash states that Moses is surprised by Pharaoh’s reaction. If God had meant to redeem the people, how could there be a negative response from Pharaoh? Should they not be redeemed immediately? Here, Moses questions the direction from God– seeking to understand fully what God’s underlying intentions are.

The same questioning occurs when Miriam is stricken with leprosy and again when Moses is told to appoint Joshua as his successor. Each time, the result of his interaction with God is not as Moses expects, instead, the midrash has him re-approaching God for clarification of his prophecy. Moses plays the dutiful student, seeking to understand a difficult lesson.

His final questioning of God occurs within this week’s parashah. Moses beseeches God and recounts his request: "And I pleaded with the Lord at that time saying, O Lord God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your might? I beg of you, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and Lebanon" (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).

Questioning God’s ban prohibiting him from entering the land, Moses appeals to God to cancel the decree and allow him to enter. His plea to God is compared by Horowitz to asking that an oath be nullified. Moses focuses intently on canceling God’s oath preventing him from re-entering the land. In this, Moses is seeking to understand the ban, in its essence (Horowitz, Shnei Luhot ha’Brit, p. 107 Sharei Tzion ed.).

In his continual tendency to question and seek clarification and meaning, Moses provides us with a paradigm for a student’s responsibility. His goal is to relearn his prophecy until he fully understands its comprehensive message. In each situation, Horowitz explains that Moses is not challenging God’s message, but seeking to understand what he may have missed in the first telling.

As well it is with our calendar of holidays and observances. The historical message of each observance and holiday is clear, but our reasons for perpetuating them sometimes are not. Specifically, with Tisha b’Av, finding contemporary relevance in this day of mourning in an era in which the Jewish state has been re-established, can be particularly challenging. During the days of the Second Temple, as well, challenges were made to indefinitely postpone the fast of Tisha B’Av.

To guarantee relevance, we have defined this day on the calendar as the day on which numerous tragedies occurred. But our forte in Judaism is that of seeing relevance, not only through history, but also, as is evident in the example of Moses, through our own learning and relearning.

Each cycle of our calendar year is a call for us to refine and relearn our understanding of our holidays and observances. In Horowitz’s conclusion, he states that this pattern of relearning is what eventually leads to actualizing the verse, "You who held fast to the Lord your God are alive each and every one of you this day" (Deuteronomy 4:4). Holding fast to our Judaism is not a passive observance but an active engagement–not simply passing through the calendar, but connecting to it and relearning our historic salient moments until we achieve the level of understanding inspired by Moses.

Silent Deliberations

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies. Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Too often the strong, silent man is silent only because he does not know what to say, and is reputed strong only because he remains silent.” This indictment, spoken by Winston Churchill, initially reminds me of our patriarch Jacob. We read this week one of the most disturbing stories contained in the Genesis narrative–the abduction of Dinah. As our parashah tells us, Dinah was the daughter of Leah and Jacob, sister to Shimon and Levi. When she went out one day to meet the other young women of the land, the local prince, Shekhem, abducted and raped her. Upon hearing the news of this violation, Jacob reacted as we never would have supposed a father would — with silence.

Jacob and Shekhem Make A Deal

Juxtaposed with Jacob’s reaction, is the angry response from Dinah’s brothers. After abducting her, Shekhem fell in love with Dinah and wished to marry her. When Shekhem came to Jacob to plead his case, the parashah tells us that the brothers answered him, “cunningly, with deceit” (Genesis 34:13). Speaking for their father, they struck a bargain with Shekhem:If he convinced every single male in his land to circumcise themselves, then he could have their captive sister’s hand in marriage.

Rabbeinu Bahya, a 13th to 14th century commentator from Spain, stated in his commentary on Vayishlah, that the brothers had no intention of letting Dinah marry this man. They planned, instead, to wait until the third and harshest day of pain after circumcision, when the men of the city would be weakest, and take their sister back from her captivity. This plan, however, morphed into a deadly act of vengeance.

The Revenge of Shimon and Levi

When Shimon and Levi went to release Dinah, something went drastically wrong. The brothers entered the home of Shekhem, and then crumbled into an emotional fury. They displayed a lapse of faith in God, who bestows righteousness and compassion, and in a moment of filial loyalty, stepped over aline that snowballed into wrath, rage and vehemence. They killed each and every male in the city and then turned their swords against Shekhem and finally his father.

Rabbeinu Bahya, continuing his commentary on this parshah, states that Shimon and Levi’s rampage was not simply a momentary lapse in judgment; rather, that their actions were premeditated. They justified their revenge by holding the entire town’s men responsible for the abduction of Dinah. After all, had they not stood idly by as an injustice was done?

Despite these justifications, we cannot endorse their fit of rage, their emotional disregard for compassion and humanity. We must define their actions as a gross injustice, a crime and an embarrassment. Humanity is our gift from God. Though, sometimes we may forget our humanity and respond with vengeance, but vengeance is an instinctive emotion, not tied to our God given gifts.

Jacob Breaks His Silence

Our patriarch Jacob responded to his son’s horrible actions by crying out, “You have discomposed me, making me hated by the people here” (Genesis 34:30). You have messed everything up, he seems to say. You have messed up everything that we stand for, everything that we preach,everything that your ancestors have done before you. We followed God’s directions and taught others the meanings of righteousness and compassion; you have rendered these lessons in effectual. The Holy words of our tradition, the intensity of our faith, our belief in a righteous and compassionate God, all are now vapid and vacuous because of your actions.

Jacob is no longer silent. In fact, his message to his sons was loud and clear–“ahartem oti!” You confound me! This is not my family; I do not recognize these actions. How did Shimon and Levi respond to their father’s chastisement? They had no satisfying answer. When they should have apologized or at the very least remained silent in the face of their father’s rebuke, they attempted to justify an unjustifiable act by asking simply, “should he treat our sister like a harlot?”

Contemplating Our Responses

This parshah can be seen as both support for and a challenge to Churchill’s statement. The men of Shekhem who remained silent in the face of Dinah’s abduction follow Churchill’s words. Jacob, however, challenges Churchill’s wisdom. Sometimes, a situation demands contemplative silence — a silence during which one may deliberate and decide on appropriate reaction. Jacob’s sons, however, do not take their cues from their father’s silence; they act with rash judgment, which permanently damages their lives. Perhaps Jacob,the wiser, elder statesman demonstrated a silence that Churchill might even have envied.

In a society where instant reaction and instant messaging is the norm, we could take a few cues from our patriarch, Jacob. Acting without our God-given gift of intelligent reasoning, we damage our present and our future. May we take the time to live in the silent moments and then react with humanity.