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A Hasidic Lens on Parashat Bo

Today I want to share with you some of what I think are the most astounding, and provocative, and informative Jewish messages that we have available to us as Reconstructionists, as Jews in general today. But they come from a place that you might never think to look: the 18th-century and 19th-century Hasidic commentaries on the Torah. Now, part of the joy that I find in studying these texts is that even though a lot of them carry messages that I think are identical to the key points that Kaplan was promoting in the early to middle of the 20th century, they nonetheless use a very much more poetic, mystical, spiritually oriented language than we are used to, and certainly than what Kaplan was comfortable with. And, a little later, I’m going to tell you why I think that that is so important for us to open ourselves to that kind of language: not to change our Reconstructionist message, but to open ourselves to a newer, or “new-older” language that’s new again. And I will, maybe, get to tell you about how we use this language and these kinds of texts to carry the Reconstructionist message to our high school kids.

I took three selections from a collection called Iturei Torah or “Crowns of Torah.” [It draws] mostly from Hasidic sources from the 18th- and 19th-, and sometimes a little bit of the early 20th-century.  I’ve picked three quotations, or three takes from three different masters on three verses from this week’s very familiar Torah portion.

By the way, I’m gonna be dealing with three bigger Kaplanian issues. The first is God, the second is peoplehood, and the third is the responsibility to reconstruct and model the tradition in every era. Those are [topics about which] I could pull out  Judaism As A Civilization  and [read] to you about, but I’m going to do it through this very different medium from what we’re used to.

First: In one of the first verses in the parsha, the portion, we read, “And the Eternal said to Moses,” it says, “Bo el paro,” which is usually translated as “Go to Pharaoh.” And that’s the standard sense of the meaning, of the text. It continues, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants that I might show these my signs before him.” Now I’m not going to talk today about the whole hardening of the heart and the theology of that. That is very interesting and important for Reconstructionists to talk about, but I’m going to do a different thing.

I want you to see the take of the man known as the Kotzker Rebbe, this is Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk. [He lived from] 1787 to 1859. He illustrates for me what I call a hyper-literal technique of Hasidic Torah commentary, which is to say, he’s going to pretend that the text of the Torah literally means what it really only figuratively means. Almost in a way that a psychotherapist would listen to your language and say, “I get what you’re saying but I wonder why you used that language and not other language. And I’m going to read it hyper-literally.”

So here’s what he does:  he starts with, “Bo el Paro,” come to Pharaoh. Notice he says that the Torah does not say lekh, as in like Lekh Lekha to Abraham and Sarah, go to Pharaoh, but Bo, “come” to Pharaoh. He says the reason is (that means he thinks the reason is) that one cannot go from the Blessed Holy One. You can’t go away from what I’m going to call God’s reality, because I’m going to be reading it as a Kaplanian. It is impossible to distance one’s self from God, because God exists in every makom or in English, “place,” in every place.

Then he quotes Isaiah: this would be the haftarah that’s paired with the reading of the 10 Commandments that we’ll see in a couple of weeks. “M’lo kol ha-aretz kevodo –  The whole earth is full of God’s kavod or glory or majesty.” And so the Kotzker finishes here. He says, “Therefore God says here, ‘come’, as if to say, ‘Come with me.’ Hineni it’cha, Behold, I am here with you wherever you go.”  So now it uses a couple of loaded words: The word makom meaning place — but he knows darn well that the classical rabbis of the Talmudic period have started to use the word “Ha-makom,” “the Place”, to suggest already that God is not a god, a deity with limited location and powers — a Him, a God that raises his voice or loses his temper and all that. That God is starting to become more understood in the way that Kaplan finally describes it, really a la Maimonides as the background or ground of all meaning, of all reality. The touchstone of all morality and ethics. In other words, that God is not “a god,” but that God is the word our ancestors used to mean that reality that we need to acknowledge before we can do anything meaningful.

So here what the Kotzker is saying is that if Moses would stop thinking that God is going to take him by the hand and go somewhere with him, [Moses would, rather, understand that] God, in the way that God wants to be known, is already with him and in fact already with Pharaoh, and that the responsibility is now entirely on Moses to understand that truth and then to do what needs to be done. Moses is with God now, and if he goes to Pharaoh, he will be with God there, or he won’t be. Now this is the same Menachem of Kotzk who was famous in another story that’s often quoted, saying to his students, “Where does God dwell? Where does God exist?” And then they laugh. They say, “Well you taught us that other story, Rabbi. You taught us that God is everywhere. The whole earth is full of God’s glory.” And he says, “Not exactly.” So then he counters himself there and he says, “God is wherever we let God in.” In other words, there’s no place that *has* to be void of that reality but there is a place, many places, that are void of our acknowledging that reality.

If you go into those long theological sections in Kaplan, I think you’ll see that essentially…he wants to disabuse us of the idea of a God who’s gonna come and save us, who’s gonna put on a Lycra spandex suit and come through the window and rescue us from evil, and that we need to replace that what he would call “primitive concept” with this much more difficult—difficult, but ultimately more sophisticated—notion [that] God is the reality who is already here with you, and will be with you even in the frightening moment of confronting the Pharaoh.

I’d love to spend more time on that but I want to go on to the next one. This is number two here, farther down the line. This is the opening verse in the section that we also read on the first morning of Passover, of Pesach, and here Moses is telling the Israelites to take a lamb and slaughter it and that will be, of course the symbol of Passover and of course they’ll put the blood on the door— you know what we’re talking about there. So the verse says, “Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them… ” and then this is the… You have to see it in Hebrew as well as English.  “Mish’khu u’kechu lachem”,  Draw out and take to yourself a lamb according to your families…” and then you slaughter it, et cetera.

Now I’m going to quote from my very favorite of these Hasidic masters. He’s known as, and I have to say it in the Yiddish, the Sfas Emes, which means “the language of truth.” His name is Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger. He died in 1905 and he served the Jewish community located just outside of Warsaw in the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries and I think he’s the most psychologically sophisticated of all of these teachers.

Here’s what he says. He says, “Draw out and take you a lamb.” He says “Well it appears that a generation of those who left Egypt was a generation of great people.”…He says, “It was not an easy task to leave the service of the Pharaoh and enter that of God at the drop of a hat.” Already he’s turning the story the way we know it upside down. We think of the Israelites in Egypt as having a slave mentality—of course, a slave mentality [that] they’ll retain all the way through their many years of wandering in the wilderness. That’s why they keep resisting and asking to go back to Egypt, to go back to the slavery that they’re familiar with, that they resist Moses and Aaron and Miriam and they don’t believe in them or believe them. So the last thing you think is that he’s about to compliment these people “who were ready to leave the service of Pharaoh and enter the service of God at the drop of a hat.” You think, “What do you mean, ‘the drop of a hat?’ It took them forever and a day, and they still didn’t do it.” But watch what he does with it.

On the verse, “Draw out and take a lamb. Our sages tell us that the verse means…” (Remember..he’s not just reading the text as if ‘draw out and take’ is an idiom meaning “put out your hand and take a lamb.” He’s saying that “to put out your hand” is extra, and not needed in the text. You could just say “take a lamb,” so he’s now interpreting the “put out your hand” part. “Put out your hand and pull it back from idolatry.” He’s saying that’s what the sages teach by that, that there were Jews who’d been so deeply involved in idolatry, or were actually in what they call an Egyptian culture, or in the culture that made them into slaves and got them to accept and even like it, and therefore it was very difficult for them to give this up.”  (“Mekhilta” means that he’s quoting an early medieval Midrash on the Book of Exodus that’s known as the Mekhilta.)

Now the Sfas Emes, our teacher says, “But immediately afterwards, look here, we’re told that neither had they prepared for themselves any provisions.” In other words they hadn’t packed their bags. They hadn’t really thought out the whole idea of going to a new course of life, of turning over a new leaf. They hadn’t really thought it out. He’s trying to show that it was spontaneous. In other words, that within a short space of time these same idolaters had become such great believers in God, they’d not even bothered to prepare provisions for the way.

Of course, it’s ridiculous. It’s not what the text is saying at all. They’re essentially going out almost by force. They don’t have much choice, but he’s turning it around to say “it’s about time that we leaders of the Jewish people, Rabbis and other teachers, stop thinking that the hero of our story, of our history, is the Jewish religion and God and Moses and maybe Aaron and Miriam. The heroes are these little people who, despite everything, stuck it out, stayed with the tradition against all odds. They found some kind of strength to continue being the Jewish people, generation after generation.”

One of the things that Kaplan taught that was so hard for 20th century Jews to understand is that [not only are we] not “just a religion” —  we’re probably not really primarily a religion.  We are a people with a great history, and that’s a history that was created by the folk, by the Jewish people, by amkha. We will only really be strong in our new environment, in America, in this very, very different place, and of course in the land of Israel, the new state of Israel that was coming into being, if we would turn to our faith in Jewish peoplehood. Of course faith in God, faith in religions, faith in Torah, all of that of course, but the hero of the story is the Jewish people, a people who somehow continues to know who it is and doesn’t give up who they are. They’re the hero of the Jewish story.

And then finally, this last one I’ll go over quickly, and this one’s a little bothersome maybe for people, but I think it’s interesting to look at. This is number three, and this is, again, from our Torah portion but you know it from the Haggadah: “You shall explain to your child on the day, this is what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.” And then the next verse in the Torah says, “And it shall be a sign for you on your hand.” ‘For you’ is important, lecha, ‘for you’.

Now this other source, She’erit Menachem, and I can’t give you the whole history of this commentator, but it’s 20th century, he says, “Take the verse ‘you shall explain to your child,’ ve-higadeta lebincha.” (By the way, the ve-higadeta, “You shall explain,” that’s the source of the word “haggadah,” that’s the text we use on Passover at the seder. Haggadah means you shall explain to your child, in other words.) And then it says, “It shall be a sign for you on your hand.”

So, our teacher says this verse is the basis of the “She-eino yodei lish’ol.” That’s the fourth child of the four of the Haggadah, the one that doesn’t even know how to ask. Remember the Haggadah says there’s a child who doesn’t even know how to ask, as it says in the Torah, “And you shall explain to your child that it will be a sign for you on the day.” But regarding the third child, the Tam, that’s the so-called “simple child”, that’s the child who says “mah zot“—that child says, “What is this?” In other words, the child asks a very simple question, but the child does ask something. Regarding that child, the supporting verse is “and it shall be a sign on your hand,” but without the word lecha, ‘for you’. Why is this so?


Now, here I think is a very provocative teaching but really good for us in our time. Now don’t buy it, just think about it, all right? The teacher says it is possible to say that a child who does not know how to ask, that is, who has no clue or concept of Judaism, is so, on account of that child’s parents. Not always, of course, but sometimes yes. He’s saying something actually very similar to what Kafka says in his letter to my father, when he says, “I would have known at least something to criticize and reject about Judaism, but you didn’t even give me anything to think about. He says here, “The reason is that the parents’ home is so void of any Jewish content, so that when it says it should be a sign for you, this refers to you, the parent.” Note that any sign or remembrance from Judaism would be recognizable lecha “to you,” in your household, in your manner of personal conduct—and were this the case, then you would not have a child who doesn’t know how to ask. Because what he’s teaching is that in any case the child would at least have a trace of Jewish experience, would at least know what to ask, would be like the second child, the Rasha, who says, “What the heck is all of this nonsense to you?” But that’s a good question and we embrace that child and in our modern Reconstructionist Haggadah, we love that child and we elaborate on that child’s questions.

The child says, “What the heck is all this?” You would say, “Ah, good I’m glad you asked, at least you’re engaged.” But this child doesn’t even know that there’s anything to ask, because we haven’t done…the task that Kaplan set before us, that is to take responsibility, to reconstruct and to model the tradition we inherit, to model it for every generation that follows us, and to teach them how to do the same. We change the tradition, we reconstruct it, but first we inherit it, embrace it, and at least do something with it. And that was the heroism, I think, of Kaplan: that he was able to take that old tradition, not [to] throw it out, but to take it and say, “No, it’s rich. [But] we’ve got to change it, it doesn’t speak to us in our times.” But ultimately we must reconstruct it and pass it on, otherwise we’ll have only the fourth child, the child that doesn’t even know that there’s a question to ask.

Younger people, teenagers, even those whose vocabularies are very strong, find [Kaplan’s] language to be very dry. It doesn’t sound like spiritual language even though those of us trained in theology, trained in sociology, trained in some of these things, read Kaplan and actually we’re so proud of it. I think they respond much better to a mystical language, and that, I see much more in these kinds of texts. But let me warn you, if you go to, for instance, the ones I gave you here in the bibliography, you’re gonna see that sometimes the texts at least in translation are pietistic, sometimes they’re sexist or xenophobic, paternalistic… You have to reconstruct them, you have to re-translate them in order to teach them to yourself, much less to anyone else. But again, they address this mysterious myth of the reality of God’s presence everywhere, wherever you look. That’s not the kind of language Kaplan uses, [but] I just say it’s more engaging for our time —again, I’m just reconstructing the message. I’m trying to make it work in a new generation. I think that if we only teach the master’s words straight from him, then we’re actually countering his message, which is to make it new for a new time.








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