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Never Stop Asking

The other day after meeting with a teacher, she mentioned to me a question her young son asked. He must have been reviewing the story of the Exodus from Egypt in his mind when he says to her, “You know mom, isn’t strange that Moshe was brought up in the house of Pharaoh? What is the reason God made it happen that way?” Not knowing what to answer her son, she acknowledged the insight that underlies his question. To me, however, she expressed that, “It was just God’s plan,” the common but unsatisfying notion people carry with them into adult life.

Now it is never wise to just give an answer. Conversely it is always fine to say, “That is a very good question. I don’t know the answer.” In this case the question is truly excellent.  It shows that in the back of this young man’s mind, something was bothering him. Something about the story of Moshe and the way the redemption of the Children of Israel from Egypt transpired didn’t make sense. His mind was stimulated to inquire about something many of us just take for granted and gloss over. As the Hagadah classifies the various sons based upon the type of question asked, we are informed that the “wise son,” formulates a precise and specific question. In our case the question centers directly on the events we retell every year.

On the first night of Pesach it is our duty and obligation to relate the most fundamental principles of Judaism to the next generation. This is the purpose of the Seder. It is the night of the ‘Mesorah,” transferring our heritage from one generation to the next. This process is characterized by the model of a father teaching his son as the Torah states, “And you will teach your son on that night ….” So while it is true that it was God’s plan to bring about the redemption in this way, with Moshe being brought up in the house of Pharaoh, we have a right to try to understand God’s plan.

During the Seder, as part of the command “to tell the story,” we must analyze every aspect of God’s plan to the best of our ability. A proof to this law comes from a seemingly obscure discussion presented in the Hagadah. This brief section comes just after mentioning the 10 plagues. Here we find three giants of Torah learning, Rebbe Yose HaGalilee, Rebbe Eliezer, and Rebbe Akiva, immersed in a debate. Their surface issue was to calculate how many plagues took place at the Red Sea? Each sage brings support for his position from words of Tanach. What was the real issue under discussion between these Rabbis? To fully appreciate the extent of God saving the Israelites, they held that we must plumb even the depths of the breaches in the laws of physics that were necessary for God to accomplish the complete redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt. The culminating event was the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. They held analysis of even this aspect of God’s plan was fair game.

We see from this account that when it comes to the actions of God, we have a right to question, moreover an obligation to try to understand them. God didn’t just go poof and magically the Jews were redeemed. In God’s plan the redeemer and future leader and teacher of Israel would have to have certain qualities. Being raised in the house of Pharaoh had certain formative advantages. First of all we have Pharaoh’s daughter. In an act of defiance against her father’s national edict to kill all Hebrew male babies, she saves a Jewish baby from certain death. Her strong will and nature will go a long way in molding the personality of Moshe.

Second, Moshe is appointed to a position of leadership by Pharaoh. From Pharaoh’s perspective this appointment was a political ploy. Make a Jew the head of Pharaoh’s policies and all the Jews will fall in line. This tactic has been used against us many times in our history. But from Moshe’s point of view it gave him access to the inner workings of the government. The Torah says Moshe went out one day and “He saw them in their labors.” Obviously, it is just a fact of servitude! How did Moshe just happen to see and Egyptian hitting a Jew? This verse means that he saw the truth. He had first-hand knowledge of the truth. He did not accept the cover up by the government of its explanations of what was really happening to the Jews. He looked into the truth of things and he wasn’t afraid to stand up for justice even if it meant jeopardizing his life, defying the rule of his step-father, ruler of Egypt.

Finally and most significant was the fact that Moshe was never enslaved. He never suffered from or had to overcome a “slave mentality.” His self-worth and dignity were never broken down or diminished. This important quality would stand him in good stead first when he gets thrown out from the presence of Pharaoh and then in his frequent negotiations with Pharaoh.  Later in the desert, Moshe displays this side of his personality defending the Jews from the consequences of God’s anger at their frequent failings.

It cannot be emphasized enough that while we accept that what happens to the nation of Israel is under the watchfulness and plan of God, at the same time it is in our “Jewish DNA” to search out for meaning and understanding in God’s plan for us.

Let us use this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, to revitalize our curiosity and commitment to looking deeply into every aspect of our Torah and Jewish way of life. In this merit may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan