Slow Down to Speed Up

With sunset tonight we welcome not only Shabbat but the first night of Passover.

It is a seemingly interesting juxtaposition: the weekly day set aside for rest and slowing down, and the annual celebration of the Exodus, of movement. Indeed, unlike the challah we eat on Shabbat, which takes time to rise and bake, the symbolic food of Passover, the matzah, is identified in the Torah specifically as food that is hurried and rushed—the bread that did not have time to rise before the time to leave Egypt arrived.

The Seder is not much different when it falls on Shabbat, there are a few additions to the liturgy in the Haggadah, but most of the activity of the Seder is the same. We eat the symbolic foods, we drink the wine, sing the same songs, tell the same story. The acts are not different.

But the intention may be. Shabbat and the Exodus story that we commemorate on Passover are already linked in the Torah. While we usually associate the reason for Shabbat with the story of Creation—God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so we too engage in creative work for most of our time but also rest one day a week—that is only one reason for Shabbat. The other is the narrative of slavery and liberation:

 “And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Eternal your God brought you from there with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm; therefore the Eternal your God commanded you to keep Shabbat.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)

Thus Shabbat, like Passover, is a remembrance of the story of the Exodus.

In the two remembrances, however, we focus on different things. With Shabbat we remember the experience of slavery itself, and that the need to rest comes from knowing that there was a time that we—and currently now, others—who do not have the luxury of rest. With Passover we remember the experience of leaving slavery, and that we were are able to transform our circumstances and therefore we commit to bring about that transformation for others.

On Shabbat, we remember the condition of oppression. On Passover we celebrate how that condition can become a mere remembrance in the first place.

So Passover on Shabbat this year is very much “slow down to speed up.” We are mindful of the Shabbat practice of rest. But we know too that the rest only serves to prepare us to act.

Don’t Just Mark the Jewish Holidays, Mark the Jewish Intervals

This post originally ran on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

The Jewish calendar is a bit interesting since we also live on Gregorian time. The fact that it is a lunar-based calendar means that every year the Hebrew dates shift vis-a-vis the “regular calendar” so that certain holidays, while they fall around that same time each year, will fall on a different date of the Gregorian calendar.

Internally, the Jewish calendar is also interesting in its composition, with its cycle of festivals and special days. While the Jewish calendar, like other calendars from other traditions, has a sequence of holidays to mark natural seasons and historical events; it also gives us the opportunity to focus our thoughts and spiritual energy on important ideas and values. Additionally, the Jewish calendar has a series of important “intervals” that link the various holidays, not just highlighting important days, but important times.

These times can be the holidays themselves—Passover, for example, is not one day but a week, giving us a period of time to remember the Exodus and reflect on the themes of oppression and liberation. In the fall when we celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we do not just mark those individual days, but the period of time between them takes on heightened importance as the Yamim Nora’im, “The 10 Days of Repentance”—a week and a half to reflect, repent and take stock of our lives and behaviors.

On the contemporary calendar, we just recently marked both Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The former marking the greatest tragedy of modern Jewry, and the latter marking one of modern Jewry’s greatest projects. And the six days between these two days give us the opportunity to reflect on the interplay between them: not just how the historical fact of one contributed to the historical fact of the other, but how tragedy and renewal, despair and hope, mourning and celebration are a continual cycle in our lives.

And now we are continuing through the period of the Omer, the seven-week period that links Passover and Shavuot, the festival marking the events of Sinai—the creation of the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. A biblically-ordained practice to literally count the 49 days, the Counting of the Omer has its roots in ancient agricultural cycles. Today, it serves as a means to link the themes of the two holidays: how simply breaking the chains of oppression does not lead to true freedom, but rather developing a system to guarantee those freedoms does. The Omer allow us to continue the process of leaving behind that which binds us that we began on Passover and to prepare ourselves for the new wisdom and insight that we will receive on Shavuot.

When I was reflecting on some of these ideas at my congregation over Shabbat, I was approached after the service by a congregant who is a runner. He explained to me that to be a successful runner, one needs to pay attention to the intervals—the time between runs. It is his belief that the intervals are as important if not more important than the runs themselves. We need to be able to rest and recover from one run in order to perform at our best at the next one.

The Jewish calendar and yearly holiday cycle contains similar wisdom. We celebrate and mark the important occasions. But we also need to pay attention to the intervals, the time between those occasions. They are as important as the days themselves, for they allow us to fully integrate the spiritual teachings of one holiday and prepare us to fully prepare for the next.

Counting Cards

In the Jewish calendar we are currently in the period of the Omer.

Originally, in the Torah, the Omer is a means to mark harvests. An omer is a sheaf of barley, and we are told to count the days between the festivals of Passover and Sukkot, to count the time between harvest seasons. As we moved away from a purely agrarian society, the Omer period took on more historical meaning—it linked Passover, the festival marking the story of the Exodus, or the Israelites leaving slavery in Egypt, to Shavuot, the festival marking the story of Sinai, the Israelites receiving the Torah and forming a new covenant.

It’s this latter meaning that has taken on import today. It is a reminder that the freedom from oppression was not complete until there was a new societal system in place to guarantee these new freedoms. It is a good social justice lesson—that we must work to overturn systems of oppression, but we must be careful not to replace them with different systems of oppression.

And the Omer too is a personal spiritual journey: having liberated ourselves from that which confines us—our own personal Egypts—we seek to grow in wisdom and knowledge—our own personal Sinais.

The Jewish mystics understood this aspect of the Omer journey, that the time on the calendar between Egypt and Sinai is a time to be spent in preparation to receive the wisdom and knowledge we need to receive. It is, in a way, an extension of or the next chapter of the Exodus: now that we are liberated, we seek to use our new found liberation to continue to grow.

To mark each day (and the ritual practice is to literally count each day—every evening first to recite an appropriate blessing for the practice than to “announce” the day) the mystics first assigned each week one of seven sephirot, or divine qualities or “emanations.” There are actually ten in the traditional understanding, but they are seen as hierarchical, connecting the human and the divine, and the “top three” are seen as existing solely in the realm of the divine. The “lower seven” are accessible to and able to be made manifest by humans.

These seven sephirot are (and note the translations are not exact, each sephira embodies embodying multiple facets):

  • Chesed (lovingkindness, compassion)
  • Gevurah (strength, discipline)
  • Tiferet (beauty, harmony)
  • Netzach (endurance, victory)
  • Hod (splendor, glory)
  • Yesod (foundation, basis)
  • Malchut (sovereignty, indwelling presence)

Then, each day within a week is assigned a sephira. So each day of the Omer becomes an exercise in reflection as we are meant to reflect on the intersection of the two sephirot.

The assignments for each day doesn’t change each year, but since we do, this is sometimes enough to find new meaning each year in this annual practice. This year, however, I embarked on a new Omer counting practice, joining up again with Kirsten, my Carpooling partner.

Kirsten is a student of Tarot (as viewers of the series will know!). I had not known much about Tarot myself beyond basic cursory knowledge, but from what I learned from Kirsten, an aspect of the practice that resonated with me is how the cards can be used for setting an intention. Each card carries a particular meaning, and the act of drawing cards for a particular circumstance is a way of setting that intention for oneself, a personal kavannah.

In a conversation about the Omer, we hit on the idea: Kirsten draws a card for each day of the Omer, and we communicate about the intersection between the meaning of the day based in the Jewish mystical tradition and the card that she selected for that day. We would then write an intention for the day to go alongside an image of the card. So, we did it. We have been calling it “Omer with Tarot,” and you can find it (and follow it) on Facebook, Instagram and on a dedicated website.

Our practice is, on the one hand, a great way to simply maintain the daily practice of counting, one that I admit I am sometimes a bit lax about. But being accountable to thinking about the day, the card, the sephirot, the intention and then collaborating on writing something has been a good way to count each day.

In addition, it’s been a wonderful and powerful exercise in thinking broadly about spiritual practice, of dialogue among different practices and traditions and of opening myself up to engaging with Jewish tradition in new and interesting and thought provoking ways.

And that, in and of itself, embodies the spirit of the Omer: how can we open ourselves up to receive wisdom, no matter from where it may come? On the way to Sinai the Israelites were preparing to receive a new source of teaching and guidance which they had not experienced previously, a new source of teaching and guidance that would give shape to their lives and set a new intention for their future.

As we make our own spiritual journey of the Omer, we do the same.

“Thank you for the simple egg”: An invocation at the Washington State Legislature

On April 20, 2017 I delivered the following invocation in the Washington State House of Representatives:

Source of All Life and Blessing, thank you for this season.

We as a human family are witnessing the awakening of our world, as nature comes alive once again in spring. We delight in the buds on the trees, the opening flowers and all the new growth that surrounds us.

Last week Christians in our state and around the world celebrated Holy Week, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Last week Jews in our state and around the world celebrated Passover, marking the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

Both of these festivals, while theologically different, capture the spirit of renewal and rebirth of the season. And while different, both share a common symbol, that of the egg. The Easter egg, and the egg on the Seder plate.

The egg captures the spirit of the season. Contained within its shell is the potential for new life. And its shell is strong, able to protect what lay inside, yet fragile enough to break when necessary, when that which is contained within is ready to emerge.

Let us remember at this season that we too are like an egg: strong yet fragile and the vessels for new life.

May we remember our strength: our ability to hold by our convictions, to support those more vulnerable, to champion that what must be championed, to resist that which must be resisted, to advocate for and demand not just what is but what could be.

May we remember our fragility: our ability as humans to be broken, which must guide us in how we treat one another, but also our ability to crack willfully, to open up our hearts and minds to new thoughts and new ideas, to be willing to be humble and vulnerable and know that we do not have all the answers, to accept compromise in order to advance the common good.

And may we remember our potential for new life: the ability to develop and champion a vision of what may be, to envision a state and a world of justice and peace and lovingkindness, and the power, especially invested in this body, to create new laws and new realities for the benefit of all.

Source of All Life and Blessing, thank you for this season. Thank you for the ability to celebrate our traditions freely and openly. And thank you for the simple egg. Which reminds us of our need to be strong when we need to be strong, but also our need to break when we need to break, so that the potential contained within us can develop into something new, and different, and better.

May all those who serve this body, and all those who the common good, find blessing in their work, and renewal at this time. May all of us be the egg.

Amen.

 

For Passover and the Exodus, think Rivers not Seas

This column first appeared in the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. You can read the original post here.

It’s spring break in our school district, so we are taking a road trip.

We left our home in Olympia on the Puget Sound and drove to Boise, ID, where we have family. We drove south towards Portland then east across the length of Oregon. It’s a drive we have done many times before on family trips. This time we are taking a different route home, driving up through Idaho and Eastern Washington so we can drop my older son at a regional robotics competition.

It is a little anxiety-producing going away the week before Passover. Passover is one of those holidays that requires a lot of preparation both personally and professionally. We need to get our house ready, cleaned of all leavened products and stocked with all the special Passover foods. And I need to plan our congregation’s community seder—monitor registration, interface with our caterer and of course prepare the ritual and special readings.

But with the kids out of school, it is important to spend family time, especially when we can take time to visit extended family. And the trip, while interfering with some of the physical preparations for Passover, provides good opportunity for some spiritual preparation.

The story of Passover is a fundamental narrative within Jewish tradition and theology. Found in the Torah in the Book of Exodus, the story begins with the enslavement of the Israelites by Pharaoh in Egypt and concludes with their liberation by God through Moses. The details—the Israelites crying out, the harsh decrees of Pharaoh, Moses’s call at the burning bush, and the series of demands for freedom by Moses each accompanied by a plague—round out this overarching story of deliverance and emancipation.

The story is fundamental because of this narrative arc from oppression to liberation. It is a paradigm for personal transformation, and it is a paradigm for social change. Indeed, when we retell the story at the Passover seder, it is our requirement to make connections between the biblical narrative and our own lives and situations.

The climax of the narrative is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea): having left Egypt the Israelites find themselves pursued by the Egyptian army. They arrive at the Sea of Reeds and seeming have no place to turn; before them is an impassable sea and behind them is at best return to slavery and at worst death. Through both divine guidance and the human motivation for freedom, the sea is split in two and the Israelites move forward on dry land before it comes together again on top of the Egyptian army.

It is this part of the story that I have been thinking about on this road trip, as much of it has taken us by water. But not seas, rivers. We have passed by and along numerous rivers, primarily the Columbia River, which serves as the border between Washington and Oregon before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean.

Driving alongside the Columbia, and stopping at times overlooking it, I realize that I may have been imagining the story of the Exodus all wrong. Personally, I always imagined the Sea of Reeds as a vast, endless body of water. (Maybe that was the influence of the movies.) But maybe a river is a better image. With a river one is able to see the other side, and so the potential for crossing over to a new life is attainable. And rivers themselves provide means for a journey, connecting locations over vast distances.

And the image that struck me most from this trip is when we stopped alongside one of the numerous dams that dot the Columbia, dams which harness the power of the water to create energy and electricity. Humans have learned to harness the power of the flowing river. And isn’t this what happens at the Sea of Reeds, when the waters are dammed up providing new energy for the people?

[Indeed the life-giving power of rivers is already hinted at in the story, with Moses being saved from a death decree by being sent down the Nile River, and the journey to liberation was begun by Moses turning the Nile into blood.]

Engaging with our natural world and rivers on this trip has allowed me personally to think about the Passover story in new ways. And no matter how you envision the story, no matter what images stand out for you, it should be in keeping with the essence of the story: that it is a story of movement, and we must end up in a different place than where we started.

Over the Hump

Today is the minor holiday of Lag B’Omer, the 33rd Day of the Omer, the seven week period that spans the weeks between Passover and Shavuot.

There are a few associations for this holiday. One is that it is the traditional yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Talmudic rabbi known for his deep knowledge and mystical powers. A story is told how he, in hiding from the Roman authorities, spent 12 years in a cave with his son learning Torah and Jewish wisdom. When he emerged, he ended up setting fire to the world around him, and he needed to be sent back into the cave to settle down. To mark the anniversary of his death, it has become customary to visit his grave in northern Israel and to light bonfires symbolizing both his power and the light of Torah and tradition.

[Last year I was in Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer, and it was a crazy scene of people collecting large piles of wood—mostly pallets—and bringing them to empty lots where families and communities would gather for bonfires and picnics.]

Another story in the Talmud gives a different association for this day: it is told that a plague wiped out many students at the academies of the time, and many prominent scholars died. It was on Lag B’Omer that the plague ended, and so the day has become one of celebration.

This association with the plague is what leads the period of the Omer to be considered a period of semi-mourning, and that traditional observance is to refrain from holding celebrations such as weddings during these weeks, at least up to Lag B’Omer. There is also the custom of not shaving or cutting one’s hair.

I don’t generally treat the period as a mourning period, but I do maintain the practice of not shaving or cutting my hair. At sundown last night I went into the bathroom and emerged newly shorn. For me, while the story of the plague is may not be a compelling motivator for spiritual practice, the idea behind it is.

As mentioned, the Omer is the period on the Jewish calendar between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Passover, which marks the story of the exodus from Egyptian slavery, is the festival of liberation. Shavuot, which marks the revelation at Sinai, is the festival of the giving of the Torah, of law, of covenant. The Omer period is the seven weeks between these holidays, and we ritually count each day.

As we link these two holidays ritually, we link them thematically. The joining of Passover and Shavuot reminds us that leaving Egypt is just the beginning of the journey. While it marks the liberation from Egyptian slavery, linking it to Shavuot reminds us that the ancient Israelites weren’t completely free until they received the Torah and formed the covenant with God. In other words, a people weren’t truly free until they had a new society, a new system of governance, a new organizing structure that would guarantee their freedoms and form the basis for the community moving forward.

Thus the Omer marks the in-between time of leaving one reality and entering another, which can be a time of uncertainty and precariousness. The idea of the plague, then, has resonance: a story of an epidemic is also a story of uncertainty and precariousness. When we “mourn,” we are not necessarily mourning loss, but acknowledging the lack of control and fragility that comes with life.

This idea is also reflected in the Omer’s agricultural roots. In the Torah, the beginning of the Omer was marked by bringing a sheaf (“omer”) of barley to the priest who would wave it as a prayer of hope for a good harvest. At the end of the Omer period, the time of the harvest, the first fruits would be brought to the priest as an offering of thanks. The Omer period can then be understood in this sense of fragility as well, since a good harvest is hoped for, but not guaranteed, and each day of plant growth comes with uncertainty. We can think about this as we prepare our own gardens for the season.

But on this journey of fragility, we pause on this day to celebrate.

And it makes sense that we should. For today, on the 33rd day of this 49 day journey of the Omer, we are closer to Sinai than we are to Egypt. We are closer to full liberation than we are to oppression. We are closer to harvest than we are to planting.

This in-between time can be one of uncertainty and precariousness. But it can also be a time of anticipation and growth in the expectation of what comes before us.

While I don’t always read my horoscope (I’m a Cancer), mine for this week from Free Will Astrology seemed particularly apt:

French painter Henri Matisse didn’t mind being unmoored, befuddled, or in-between. In fact, he regarded these states as being potentially valuable to his creative process. Here’s his testimony: “In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows.” I’m recommending that you try out his attitude, Cancerian. In my astrological opinion, the time has come for you to drum up the inspirations and revelations that become available when you don’t know where the hell you are and what the hell you’re doing.

In the in-between, we may not know where we are or what we are doing. But we are supported by the fact that amid such uncertainty is the promise of a better future. On this Lag B’Omer we celebrate our ability to leave behind what it is we need to leave behind, even if we are not sure about what is to come.

Why I Created a Petition to Change the (Future) Dates of Olympia Arts Walk

Last week it felt like two simultaneous preparations were happening. People were prepping for Passover, getting boxes of matzo, choosing recipes, sending and accepting invitations to Seder. And people were prepping for Olympia Spring Arts Walk, hanging art in downtown businesses, tuning up instruments, putting last minute preparations into Procession of the Species costumes.

And with the simultaneous preparations came from some corners grumblings or disappointment at the confluence of the two. Because this year, the beloved institution of Arts Walk—always on the last weekend in April—fell on the first night of the important festival of Passover—always on the 15 of Nissan but variable according to the Gregorian calendar.

This is not the first time something like this happened. Two years ago Fall Arts Walk, which occurs on the first weekend in October, coincided with Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of our calendar. And when this happens, we in the Jewish community are one, reminded how our calendar and sacred celebrations are not normative, and two, forced with the need to either make choices or accommodations as to how we wish to participate in either our Jewish traditions or community celebrations (or both). It is a conflict I wrote about recently when the Democratic caucuses fell on Shabbat morning.

So to channel expressed frustration and to raise awareness, I created a petition on change.org. While I’ve signed petitions before from this site, I’ve never made one, and gave the technology a whirl. I created a petition and shared it on social media. Unbeknownst to me it was also passed along to the Olympian, which ran a story about it.

The gist of petition is that while the Jewish holidays are variable in relation the Gregorian calendar, they are not random. We know when the holidays will fall in perpetuity. Now we can just look up on line, but one of my prize possessions is a book of a perpetual Jewish calendar that tells the corresponding Jewish date for the years 1900 to 2100. (My dad first got it before the advent of the Internet to track the date of his mother’s, my grandmother’s, yahrtzeit). I keep it open on my desk.

calendar

So in other words, we know when the holidays and Arts Walk will conflict again. And we know far in advance. On a whim I looked it up, and found that in 2027 Fall Arts Walk will conflict with Rosh Hashanah, in 2041 Fall Arts Walk will conflict with Yom Kippur and in 2043 Spring Arts Walk will fall on Passover. The “ask” of the petition is that the city officials in charge of making those scheduling decisions take into account those conflicts and consider rescheduling Fall and Spring Arts Walk in those years. The petition is active, and as of this posting there are over 160 signatures.

I’m not sure what will come of it, though I do intend to pass it along to city leadership and maybe open up a conversation. For again, it wasn’t meant to be adversarial. And I don’t know if it will be successful in its stated goals of changing the event in 25 years. But, it was meant as a reminder that we live in a diverse community, diversity is difficult, and we need to be continually thinking through and evaluating how we can embrace evolving inclusivity.

I was torn in creating and promoting the petition. I recognize that our secular calendar is based around a Christian flow of time, and part of me just accepts that. At the same time, it is important to remember that not everyone fits, and that we as Jews are governed by two calendars that conflict at times (having to take off school or work for the High Holidays is another issue). I know too that it shouldn’t be my place to have to continually educate, that general knowledge of world religions should be standard. And at the same time, I know that we must advocate for ourselves, share our experiences and point out when we feel challenged and excluded.

Through the petition I hope to express personal concerns and widen the experience of the Jewish community so that others feel empowered to express the same (whether one identifies with Judaism religiously, culturally, ethnically or a combination, this issue with the calendar conflict served as a reminder of “otherness.”) And it gives others in the greater community to show their support and reminds us in the Jewish community to lend our support to others who feel similarly challenged and excluded.

So in some ways, while I started it on a lark, the petition is already successful, for the goal was not necessarily accommodation, but mindfulness. And mindfulness is the first stage of any movement of liberation.

Tonight ushers in the 7th day of Passover, our festival of liberation. It was the 7th day that tradition teaches was the day of the crossing of the Red Sea. In the story of the Exodus in the Torah we are told that it wasn’t just the Israelites who left Egypt, but the group that left was an erev rav, a “mixed multitude,” a group of people that represented a variety of backgrounds and communities. Israelites, yes, but also Egyptians who found common cause with them.

Thus from the very beginning a liberated community is defined by diversity. When we create community, there will be people with different attitudes, ideas, mores and narratives that we need to take into consideration. We can go on thinking and pretending we are all the same, or we can say, wait a minute, something else is going on here that we need to think about. And the challenge, then, is to navigate this diversity to truly create a society that welcomes and celebrates all.

And if you are up for the challenge, please sign.

The Child We Think We Should Be, and the Child We Ought to Be: A Reflection for the Seder

The Seder is the story of a journey, and the Haggadah is the guidebook. Through engaging with symbolic foods and meaningful text, we retell the story of the Exodus.

There are fourteen parts to the Seder, each one its own step in the journey. The section “Maggid” (“telling”) is dedicated to telling the story in dramatic fashion, and part of the drama is the parable of the four children.

The Torah tells us four times that we are to tell the story of the Exodus to our children. Since there can be no redundancies in Torah according to the ancient rabbis, they imagine that each command to tell the story to our children is an answer to a child with a different temperament. This midrash (commentary) is recorded in the Haggadah. Here is the traditional passage in its entirety:

four children
The Four Children. Drawing and photo by me.

The Torah speaks of four children–one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.

The wise one (chacham)–what does he say?  “What are the testimonies, and the statutes and the laws that Adonai our God commanded you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20).  So you tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may not eat anything whatsoever after the Pesach sacrifice.

The wicked one (rasha)–what does he say?  “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26).  “To you”, and not to him.  And since he excluded himself from the people at large, he denies the foundation of our faith.  So you blunt his teeth and tell him, “It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).  “For me”, and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The simple son (tam)–what does he say?  “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14).  “Tell him, ‘with a strong hand God took us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery'” (ibid.).

As for the one who does not know how to ask (she’ano yodea lishol), you must begin for him, as it is written “and you shall tell your child in that day, saying:  It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

Judging by the answers to the children, the wicked child and the one who does not know how to ask are one in the same. They receive the same answer because they both take themselves out of the story, albeit in different ways—the wicked consciously and the non-asker by indifference. On the other hand, the wise and the simple child put themselves into the heart of the story, albeit in different ways.

When we were young, perhaps we all imagined ourselves to be—or hoped ourselves to be—the wise child. Or even now as adults who admire wisdom and intelligence we tend to favor the first child. We all want to be the chacham.

But to be the chacham is not always to be prized.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his work Ma’or Vashemesh, reflects on the story in Genesis of the serpent in the Garden tempting humanity with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The knowledge gained, he writes, is the wisdom of knowing good and bad, yet when one knows good from bad, one tends to pass judgment on his or her fellow human being:

We must not hold ourselves as so smart that we really know our fellow, and her unique path…And, surely when we perceive another’s deficiencies we do so out of haughtiness; we hold ourselves to be “something.” But, if we were truly humble, knowing our own deficiencies and twisted ways, we would consider our fellow as better than we. We would not look for their deficiencies at all. It is only because we see ourselves as “great” that another’s ways and words are not fit in our eyes. Jacob, our Father, had this quality: he was a “simple man (ish tam)”, who did not hold himself to be so smart (chacham) that he should assess another’s ways. (Ma’or Vashemesh, Bereshit. Trans. by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality)

The chacham is arrogant, who judges others. The tam is humble, who does not.

Reflecting this back onto the Haggadah: the wise child’s question is focused solely on the correct practice of Passover, on all of the intricacies, the rules, the observances. He knows what is good or bad, what is right or wrong, and he will judge if it is not done right. And so he is answered only with the laws. He is unable to see beyond the what of Passover to the why of Passover. And if he doesn’t understand the why, then he is unable to understand redemption.

The simple child asks only, “what is this?” By asking the open-ended question, he does not invite or pass judgment. He simply opens himself to the “all of it,” the meaning of Passover, the possibility of redemption and the journey of transformation. Indeed, this is the answer to his query–God took us out of Egypt. There is no presumption, no leading question. Only the willingness to inquire and the humility to hear the answer.

Wisdom, the Ma’or Vashemesh teaches, is not always assigned but assumed. And when we assume our own wisdom, we fail to see beyond ourselves and open ourselves up to the wisdom that comes from others. The wise child of the Haggadah presumes to know all there is to know about Passover and therefore fails to grasp the true meaning of the festival.

However: Future redemption will come not from the wise who have the audacity to believe they know all the answers, but from the simple who have the humility to know that they do not.