Conversations with the Future
(Some of these ideas were shared during the drasha in shul on the first day of Pesach 5781.)
Last week, I wrote an article in defense of my grandmother and yours. The basic idea that I wanted to convey is that our grandparents understood that there is a deep value in commitment, dedication and hard work. Especially, in the performance of mitzvos. It's a value that has fallen out of fashion in Yiddishkeit as we have endeavored to find more frictionless avenues for mitzvah observance (many for good halachik and hashkafik reason.)
In that article, the example I gave was of the voluntary acceptance of chumros in preparing for Pesach on the part of our grandmothers. The reason for this example was in part because of the timeliness of it. But also because this subset of the Jewish people - our maternal ancestors - are often robbed of any agency in our retrospective of history. This is true on the right and left.
On the extreme right, our mothers are often portrayed as saintly: Accepting the challenges of poverty and pain with unimaginable grace from which we could only hope to be inspired.
On the extreme left, these same women are viewed as ignorant victims of a patriarchal society that intentionally sidelined female voices.
No doubt, there is always some truth to every story, and a world of nuance in between. And since posting this article on Facebook, some of the ideas discussed have taken on a life of their own.
I am grateful for the responses and conversations. I have learned a lot from them. (Despite those that went out of their way to malign me, as insensitive, chauvinistic and obviously a dead weight at home, as evidenced by the fact that I had time to write such and article.)
What I found most fascinating, however, is how certain each camp is of their position and perspective of the meaning of events in history that none of us were privy to witness (myself included).
There's a famous and irreverent "joke" about R' Chaim Soloveitchik going to Shamayim and finally the Rambam, whose work R' Chaim spend his life dedicated to explain.
When he meets his great mentor he asks whether his understanding of a particular contradiction was correct. The Rambam replies quizzically: "Oh that was a typo."
R' Chaim looks at him incredulously: "And what do you know about reading Rambam?!"
The story has many layers to it such as authorship vs intent, and the appropriate reverence for personalties vs texts. But I think yeshiva bochrim tell the story as a point of pride.
From the perspective of the "now", we are the arbitrators of our history. Those that came before us can no longer answer for themselves. All that remains is how we understand them. And this understanding is fraught with the inherent inability of any person to think as if they were genuinely another person from another time and place.
All we have to work with is our own world view. And it is through these lenses that we see the world.
Chazal (יבמות מט ב) tell us that, even amongst the prophets, Moshe was the only one to see the Truth of Hashem and the world through a clear lens. All of the other prophets saw Hashem, the world and the Truth through a somewhat opaque lens. These definitions and differences are hard to contemplate in our world so far from prophecy. But the Sh'la Hakadosh (מס׳ שבועות תורה אורה ד׳) explains that this metaphor of Chazal means that every prophet, aside from Moshe saw Hashem on the other side of the lens, but since it was opaque, they also saw themselves.
That is to say, even prophecy relies on an image of ourselves that we cannot escape. It is this fact that allows for the possibility of a false-prophet: A genuine, legitimate prophet who allows their self image to interfere with the truth of their prophecy (ע׳ במי השלוח ח״א פ׳ וירא ד״ה והאלוקים).
(...Perhaps we could add that it was Moshe's extreme and legendary humility that allowed him to see so clearly. Meaning, that he too looked through the same window as all the other prophets, but his self-image did not obscure the vision of Truth he saw on the other side. - וצ״ע)
Of course, the older we get, the more our beliefs become entrenched. We also get better at deftly crafting logical constructs for the truths we each hold to be self evident. Our reflection become indelibly engraved onto the lenses we look through to see the world. Anyone following politics - even casually - knows that there are different Americas, different COVIDs and a different world depending on the source and perspective of your narrative.
So here's the hard question: Is it ever possible to know that we were correct in our interpretation of life? Perhaps it is us who are so sorely mistaken. Can we ever know if we will be judged kindly in the eyes of history?
But the Torah preprogramed the possibility of self-correction at least once a year on Leil HaSeder.
Every year, the Torah demands that we have a conversation with the future. We invite and encourage our children to challenge us.
Those that will carry our legacy are asked to put us on trial on Seder night. They challenge our convictions, the reasons we do mitzvos, and the basis of our faith.
For me, the most enlightening experience of publishing the original article was the anecdotal reports of grandmothers, and those that learned from them. I received dozens of messages telling me "I shared this with me grandmother and she loved it." As well as a number of far harsher messages, but no less true: "my grandmother told me that she was forced to clean for pesach and was never told their were more lenient opinions."
There is no guess work for those people. No fuzzy lenses. They know and understand exactly how their grandmothers felt. Because they told them.
I have sat with countless aveilim mourning their parents who they loved deeply. Yet so many are simultaneously convinced that their parents never understood them. And if a child feels misunderstood and dismissed, there is little hope of dialogue.
More troubling, the life lessons that the parent wishes to educate will always be marred by this schism. Tragically, our values, struggles and victories will attenuate from one generation to the next, reinterpreted within the value systems of the future.
Our generation understands the value of a meaningful life. But meaningful to whom? The Torah is instructing us this Chag to ensure that our lives are meaningful in the context of Jewish history. And the only way to achieve this is to speak to the future. To be open and vulnerable to their questions and challenges.
Ultimately, despite the meaning that we give to our own life stories, we are not the ones who will decide if our stories are meaningful.
Nelson Mandela once said: History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children. I would add: Specifically, our own children. They're the ones who will be determining if our lives were worth living.
Perhaps this is why we invite Eliyahu to the door on Seder night. As the Navi Malachi concludes:
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם י״י הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא. וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם...
I will send the prophet Eliyahu to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of Hashem. He shall return parents to their children and children to their parents...
Rashi expounds on this Pasuk:
והשיב לב אבות – להקב״ה. על בנים – ע״י בנים. יאמר לבנים דרך אהבה ורצון לכו ודברו אל אבותיכם לאחוז בדרכי המקום
That he may turn the heart of the parents back to Hashem. Through their children. Eliyahu will say to the children affectionately and appeasingly, "Go and speak to your parents to adopt the ways of Hashem."
Effectively, Eliyahu comes to our seder to remind us: If we want to live as authentic and agenda-free life as possible, if we want to be Avdei Hashem for real, we would do well to open ourselves to the questions of our children. Their voices still contain the truth of innocence, their challenges are issued without malice. Most importantly, it is they who will tell our story.
They tell a story of an elderly Chossid who came to the Izbitzer Rebbe and told him it was high time that he reign in his young grandson, Gerson Henich (who later became the Radziner Rebbe, Ba'al HaTecheles.)
"What is the matter of concern?" asked the grandfather. "The Rebbe's grandson is going around telling people that one day he will be greater than Moshe Rabbeinu. That's preposterous! Heretical!"
The Izbitzer closed his eyes and thought for a minute; then responded: "My grandson is right. For he is alive and Moshe Rabbeinu is not. Let him dream."
Hashem should grant us the strength to be challenged by our children, to see the world through their lenses, and to find in their questions, the answer: ועכשיו קרבינו המקום לעבודתו - And now Hashem has brought us close to His service.