Devar Torah for Pesach: Play-Acting Transcendence

There’s a lot to talk about for Pesach, and indeed, I can talk and talk until zeman kriat shema tomorrow morning, but instead I’d like to offer a small insight on a small slice of the haggadah, and maybe I will have shown something about Pesach in general. We read in the Haggadah:

אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה: הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא: שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַיָמִים, כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָשִׁיחַ.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah said: “I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: “It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;’ now `the days of your life’ refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all’ indicates the inclusion of the nights! The sages, however, said: `The days of your life’ refers to the present-day world; and `all’ indicates the inclusion of the days of the Messianic Era.”

This paragraph is dealing with the question of when one is required to mention and remember the Exodus from Egypt. R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma say the requirement to do so is operative both day and night, and adduce a prooftext for their claim. The Sages, on the other hand, hold that the requirement to mention the Exodus from Egypt is only operative during the day time, and use the proofext offered by R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma not to mean that the requirement is also operative at night, but that it is also operative in the messianic era. To summarize, R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma think that remembering the Exodus from Egypt is operative both day and night, and the Sages hold that the command in question is operative during the day and in the messianic era. We clear? Cool.
So what I’d like to do is attempt to read this little paragraph as indicative of two different philosophical approaches to the fact of the exodus from Egypt and its significance to the religious life. Let us first, however, define what it is exactly we are talking about. To use a phrase I hate, What do we talk about when we talk about the Exodus? You can offer all kinds of answers to that question, (FREEDOM, ‘MURICA!, ZIONISM! etc etc), but I think a clear and relatively uncontroversial answer to that question is that the Exodus represents the clearest expression of the divine intervention into the historical process. God, through a series of open and astounding miracles, brings the most powerful empire in the world to its knees for the purposes of ending the unjust oppression and enslavement of His Chosen People, culminating in seas being split, powerful armies being drowned, and songs being sung. The Pesach Story is the story of a transcendent God imposing his will upon our earthly reality and showing the path towards a better world order, a flash of transcendence in our ordered world.

So, what do we do with that? How do we as religious Jews relate to that event of transcendence? Let us begin with what I understand to be the approach of The Sages in the paragraph I cited above. The Sages hold that the commandment to remember the Exodus is only in situations of clarity, in the daytime and in the messianic era. The fact of God intervening in history can only be fully appreciated when such moments are clear as the light of day, and in the absence of such clear intervention, it should not be attempted. We should live with the cognizance that we are not in a stage of history resembling the Exodus, that we are in exile in an unperfected world, and should not attempt to pretend that we already live in a paradise. And though the Sages’ opinion is not, in the end, taken, there are still traces of this concept up and down the Haggadah. We, for instance, leave out roasted meat, even though that was what offered in the times of the Temple, as a reminder of our exile. The Holiday of Pesach recognizes that our reality is not a transcendent one, and remains grounded in that reality.

R. Elazar Ben Azarya and Ben Zoma, though, have a different approach, and one that seems to guide most of our observance of Pesach. True, they say, we live in the dark night of exile, a much different scenario than the daylight clarity of the Exodus and the Messianic Era. But, they say, we can recreate that transcendent moment in our own lives by reliving, by play-acting our way through the redemption process. And this, it seems to me, underlies the entire Pesach experience. From the search and destruction for Chametz that parallels the purging of evil from the world, to the Seder where we recreate the experience of going from slavery to freedom, even to the reading of Shir Hashirim, Pesach is about living our lives in a way that parallels and recreates transcendence in our imperfect reality, about allowing ourselves to live life as an allegory. Perhaps that is why, going a little off-peshat here, R. Elazar Ben Azarya introduces his idea with “I was like 70 years old, כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה”. R. Elazar Ben Azarya’s opinion, and Pesach in general, is about the “like,” the “as if,” the כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם.

Scattered Personal Thoughts On Cooking, Anxiety and Channukah

Since my years in yeshiva, I have found that, for me, one of the most effective modes of therapy for the times I find myself in a troubled state of mind is cooking myself some dinner. Somehow, during the times in yeshiva that I fell into deep depression, cooking myself a simple dinner of pasta, often served with a sauce of my own invention (butter, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper) that I called “Yeshiva Noodles”, and it would make me feel better. When I went to YU, during dark days in my freshman year, living in a dorm without a kitchen, I found myself lost without my preferred method of coping, and the promise of a kitchen to cook in was one of the motivating factors that led me to move off-campus. During that time, I branched out from Yeshiva Noodles to, well, other kinds of pasta, and then other stuff as I challenged myself more and more. French Toast I recall being one milestone. Simple stuff, but I was having fun. Now that I’m married, I’ve expanded my repertoire considerably, and it still comforts me on the rough days I still have on occasion.
Why does it work? Back in yeshiva,  I figured the reason this worked was “I may be a failure at everything else, but at least I can feed myself”, which I think tells you more about why I kept getting depressed than it does about why that made me feel better. I think it can be partially explained by one peculiar feature of my cooking hobby, which is my stubborn refusal to follow recipes. I love nothing more than just making something up from the ingredients I have at hand. Sure, I look up recipes occasionally just for inspiration and basic direction, ie, what temperature to set the oven to and stuff like that, but I always insist on adding something of my own, and I rarely, if ever, measure out spices to conform to a recipe. (Obviously, baking is not my forte.) Part of this is a healthy non-conformist streak, the same instinct that, for instance, decided that if I was going to throw a baseball, I was going to throw it sidearm because it was weird to throw sidearm.

But part of this, I think, is a rebellion against the rest of my life which is conducted in the opposite way. I constantly worry about whether what I’m doing is objectively correct and good, be it in the papers I write, due to my desire for scholarly objectivity, in my interactions with other people, where my Asperger’s makes ascertaining the “correct” way to interact with people an object of intense scrutiny and investigation, or in my religious life, where the goal is to follow the precepts of a detailed and immense code of law governing every area of one’s life. This is absolutely not necessarily a bad thing. People should absolutely be careful around truth, around other people’s feelings, and about religious law.  But it can be taken too far. It feels like in my life I’m constantly trying to find the right recipe, the absolutely perfect set of ingredients, in order to achieve my desired goals, and I stress constantly about whether I’m going to turn out just like that perfect picture that accompanied the recipe. Often enough, I decide that if I can’t do it perfectly, if I’m just gonna mess everything up, its not even worth trying. But in actual cooking, not in the above metaphor cooking, I get to relax a little bit, even have a little bit of fun, get a little bit daring, try something new, and do the best with what I got. And the only judge is whether the food tastes good in the end, whether I cut the onions exactly to size or not, whether I use the right type of pan and the right type of oil. Sure, those things would help make the food better, and I do watch cooking shows and read food blogs to pick up tricks and tips for making stuff even better. But the point is to make good food, not perfect food, and to take joy in the process, not worry incessantly about the result. And if it turns out bad, its not such a big deal, because I’ll get to try again next time.

Obviously, this attitude cannot be applied in totality to the religious life of an Orthodox Jew. Ours is a religion which cares about the small things, which believes in humanity enough to charge it with living a life totally infused with Godliness. But perhaps we can learn a little bit from it. That we should take joy in the process of being a religious Jew, and not just be worried about the results. That we can take a step back from being crippled by an anxiety over whether we got the recipe exactly right, and do the best job we can with the ingredients we have, and trust that God will appreciate our best attempts, even if they’re not objectively perfect. Perhaps this is one lesson we can take out of Channukah. The Chashmonaim came to the kitchen with a recipe for Menorah Light, serves 8 days, and they only found enough oil for one. They could have just stopped there and decided to order takeout. But they pressed on, because it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has give it its best shot. And God recognized it as good enough.