Last week’s parshah was Tzav. It tells of one of the most glorious days in the history of the Jewish people, the dedication of the Mishkan, when the Sh’chinah came to dwell among us. Yet on this greatest of occasions there was unspeakable tragedy, the sudden death of two sons of Aharon. We are about to celebrate a Pesach unlike any that most of us have ever seen. We will celebrate the festival of freedom as virtual prisoners in our homes. We will sing the Hallel while crying for those we have lost and fearing for the future.
As always, let us look to the Haggadah for wisdom. Rabbi Norman Lamm, as quoted by my Daf Yomi rebbe, Rav Sholom Rosner, wrote that on the one hand the Seder is tradition. Every family has its own customs that have been handed down from generation to generation. The Seder as we observe it today is almost exactly the same as what was described in the Mishnah, written almost two thousand years ago, based on traditions that go back even further. Yet, on the other hand, the Seder is full of questions. The Mah Nishtanah – the Four Questions, and the questions of the Four Sons. The description of Pesach, Matzah, and Maror, which Rabban Gamliel said are indispensable to carrying out our obligation, is phrased in the form of questions and answers. Pesach al shum mah, Matzah al shum mah, Maror al shum mah.
Rabbi Lamm wrote that what is true of the Seder is true of Judaism as a whole. There are some religions that demand unquestioned adherence to certain beliefs and practices. There are others that question everything and require people to do only what is meaningful to them. Judaism is both. On the one hand, we are transmitting traditions that go back thousands of years. We are expected to accept certain beliefs and live up to certain standards of behavior. The mitzvos are commandments, not suggestions. Yet we are encouraged to ask questions. Almost every Rashi in the Torah is an answer to a question. Each daf in the Gemara is filled with questions and answers. Our Sages have written numerous s’farim, answering both halachic and philosophical questions.
I believe this approach can help us to understand the times that we are going through. We must have bitachon – faith. Hashem runs the world and He will see us through this. We accept that the ways of Hashem are just. Yet we should also be asking questions. Haazinu, the parshah that teaches us “Keil emunah v’ein avel, tzadik v’yashar hu – a G-d of faithfulness without injustice, He is righteous and upright,” also says “Sh’al avicha v’yageidcha – Ask your father and he will relate to you.” Our emunah must remain unshakeable, but we must also be asking questions. For it is only by asking questions that we will come to understand why this is happening and what Hashem wants us to learn.
Each of us should be asking our own questions. The question I am asking myself is the question of the rasha – the wicked son: “Mah ha’avodah ha’zos lachem – What is this service to you?” The word avodah can have different connotations. The korbanos in the Beis HaMikdash are referred to as the avodah. T’filah – prayer – is avodah she’ba’lev – service of the heart. Yet the word avodah can also be understood as a burden.
Do we see the mitzvos as an opportunity to serve Hashem, or do we see them as a burden? In particular, do we see the morning minyan as the opportunity to pour our hearts out to Hashem or as a duty to be dispensed with on our way to other pursuits?
Many of our sages have taught that the reason we had to endure slavery in Egypt was that only those who have endured slavery can truly appreciate freedom. Did Hashem take t’filah b’tzibur away from us to teach us to appreciate it?
We sometimes complain about the high cost of being a Torah-observant Jew. Yeshivah tuition, shul membership, tz’dakah, set aside time for learning Torah and doing acts of chesed , the demands on our resources, our time, and our energy are considerable.
For $10 one can buy a ticket to a baseball game and sit in the upper deck and see the game from a distance. For $1,000 one can buy a ticket on field level behind the home team dugout, see the game up close and personal, and maybe even catch a foul ball or interact with the players. The closer one gets, the higher the price.
Hashem has given us the opportunity to be close to him. How awesome is that? A person as insignificant as I am has the opportunity to be close to the Creator of the World. Because Hashem has given us this incredible opportunity, He also demands more from us. Whatever we invest in Torah and mitzvos, Hashem will pay us back many times more by bringing us close to Him.
In these dark times, the opportunities to perform mitzvos are abundant. We can spend more time learning Torah and have numerous chances to perform acts of chesed.
In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we had left Egypt. We are about to relive an event that took place thousands of years ago that is as fresh as today. We remember a night when we were confined to our homes as Hashem protected us from the plague raging around us. That darkest of nights was followed by the brightest of dawns, redemption from slavery, and the birth of a nation destined to bring the word of G-d to the world. As we sit, some of us alone, confined in our homes, let us pray that we will soon see the light of redemption. May this be the year in which we finally see the fulfillment of the prophecy of Michah: “Kiy’mei tzeischa meiEretz Mitzrayim er’enu niflaos – As in the days when you left the land of Egypt I (Hashem) will show you miracles.”
By Manny Behar