The Wicked Child

The importance of intention in our service to God

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Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1951 to 1972, is frequently quoted as having said, "When I pray, I speak to God, when I study, God speaks to me." It is his study that inspired his inner dialogue with God and focused his intention; it is a study we continue today in our synagogues, schools, and homes, making our avodah more than just work.

Study vs. Observance

The Talmud, in Kidushin 40b, focuses on this tension as well in a dispute between rabbis Tarfon and Akivah where they are discussing which is better, study or action. Their dispute strikes at the heart of the issue: Is Finkelstein's inner dialogue through study or the basic observance of law more important? The answer provided by our sages in the discussion is that study is greater, because it leads to action.

Isaiah Horowitz (d.1630), in his book Shnei Lukhot ha'Brit, is puzzled by the answer of the sages. He challenges the reason they cited for the greater importance of study, saying that negates that very concept--if study is greater, then it cannot be so because it leads to action; however, Horowitz sees it not as a means/ends discussion, but as a cause/effect discussion. Here, the cause enables the effect, and without it, our action is the vacuous observance of the wicked child of the seder.

To further illustrate his point, Horowitz quotes from a Safed kabbalist [mystic], Moshe Cordovero(1522-1570), author of Pardes Rimonim. Cordovero uses a spectacular metaphor, relating the human body to the sun and the moon. Just as the moon has no light of its own and simply reflects the light of the sun, so too, our bodies have no light of their own and only reflect what is emitted by the soul. The internal flame of our soul, ignited by study, reflects on our physical--our action--our avodah.

May our time studying the questions of the seder--even those questions we find difficult--inspire our spirit to burn brightly and be reflected in our actions. Our mission is clear from the seder: tze u'lmad, go and learn.

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Rabbi Marc Wolf

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