Sermon for Shabbat Hahodesh March 25, 2017




Shabbat Hahodesh always feels to me like the official beginning of Pesach preparation. I know some of us have already bought some Pesach food and are starting to do the cleaning before the holiday. But, now the serious preparation begins.

This seems like the watershed moment to me because of the Maftir reading. Today’s maftir centered around the preparation for the original Pesach sacrifice. God commands Moses to communicate the details of the sacrifice to the people which Moses then does in the section immediately following our Maftir. We stopped the reading today after the instructions given to Moses and will pick it up again two weeks from Tuesday on the first morning of Pesach with the description of the performance of the sacrifice and the exodus itself. So, we have a little more than two weeks to mirror the Torah: to go from preparation to actuality, At our Seders we will re-create the exodus symbolically and we now have two weeks to prepare.

This morning, I want to give you an assignment as part of your Pesach preparation. I want to ask you a question which I hope you will consider very seriously over the next two weeks. I hope you will give your answer at your Seder and for those who are here, I hope you will share your answer during services on the first day of Pesach when we will leave time to discuss the question.

Here is the question: “What is this all about?” Or, in hebrew, Mah Zot?

You may recognize this as the question asked by the tam, the simple child in the section of the Haggadah known as the four children. In this section, four conversations found in the Torah between parent and child are assumed by the rabbis to involve children of different temperaments: wise, wicked or rebellious, simple and one who doesn’t know how to ask a question.

As you may recall and as I taught at Limmud Michigan this past Sunday, I am very uncomfortable with the rabbis assigning labels to the children. I feel that they should have labeled the questions instead, as once a label is attached to a person, it is so difficult for the person to change. But, leaving that thought aside for the moment, the section of the four children is truly fascinating and this morning, I want to focus on the child who I think is most often overlooked in this section: the tam, the simple, naïve child, the one who asks: Mah Zot, What is this?

I spent some time this week looking into the question of the tam and I found something fascinating that I had not known before. In some of the texts of the four children, this child is not known as tam, simple, but has another more damaging label attached to him. In the Jerusalem Talmud, this third child, the one who looks at everything going on at the Seder and asks: Mah Zot? What is this? is not called tam but in fact, she is called teepaysh. The Hebrew speakers among us are either laughing or sitting in shock because teepaysh means…stupid.

So, now instead of a simple child, we have a stupid child.

It goes from bad to worse.

But, leaving aside the labels, what is also troubling to me is the answer given to the teepaysh. The question: Mah Zot, what is all this? is to be answered according to the Jerusalem Talmud with the answer that we give to the wise child in our Haggada. The parent is to respond by instructing the child in all the laws of Pesach right up to the law of not eating anything after the afikoman, the small piece of matza which is eaten at the end of dessert.

Before I tell you what it so troubling about that to me, let me assure you that I believe the laws of Pesach should be critical to all of us and we should learn them and observe them. But, the idea that a lack of knowledge about the Seder that would cause someone to ask: “What’s going on here?” is to be answered with a halachic, Jewish legal discourse is terribly troubling.

While I acknowledge that we should train our children to observe the ritual traditions before they really understand the reasons behind them, the idea that a simple foundational question of mah zot, should be answered with a call to perform certain actions instead of a patient and straightforward explanation of the holiday is wrong. In our Haggadah, the Tam is answered: “with a strong hand, God took us out of Egypt”. That’s the right type of answer to the simple question. The question of the tam is not a plea to understand the intricacies of Jewish law and custom or why Mom and Dad spent so many hours cleaning the kitchen, it is an honest question from the heart: “what’s going on here?” and should be answered with a similarly general answer that touches the heart not simply commands.

The other day when I taught this section of the four children, I asked whether people thought the Tam was a positive, negative or neutral character. Most who answered thought he was either positive or neutral and I would agree.

I don’t know what is the cause of this child’s temimut, innocence and naivete. But in many places in the Torah, the adjective tam or tamim is considered positive. Jacob is called an ish tam, a simple, innocent man. We are all told in Deuteronomy we should all be tammim before God and of course Noah was referred to as tamim bedorotav, blameless and pure in his generation.

So, there’s nothing wrong with being tam. We’re all tam on occasion and the greater the event we are confronting, the more likely it is that a sensitive, thinking, serious human being will at least for a moment, stand in awe, only being able to shake his or her head and say: “What I am watching? What is going on here?”. Think about it: the more astounding the situation, the more earthshaking the experience, the more likely it is to bring out the tam in all of us. And, the Pesach Seder with its elaborate symbolism, beautiful text and overwhelming sensory demands is just such an experience.

So, here is my assignment. Take some time away from cleaning and shopping, Stop preparing your deep and meaningful Seder commentaries that you can’t wait to share and pick up a box of matzah or the shankbone which represents the Pesach sacrifice which is what inspired the tam’s question in the Torah text and say to yourself: “Mah Zot, What is this really all about?” Search for the simplest, most foundational answer you can find and share it with others at your Seder and share it with us at shul on the first day of Pesach.

Mah Zot? What is this all about? If it’s not about recipes or food we eat only once a year or endless hours sweeping out crumbs or delving into the text of the Haggadah or apportioning sections of the Seder for Aunts and Uncles to read, what is it all about?

I’m looking forward to hearing your answers.


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