Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler
Dean of Students and Mashgicha Ruchanit, Maharat
Advanced Kollel: Executive Ordination Track Class of 2018
14 Nisan 5777 | April 10, 2017
The Haggadah contains two sets of four questions: the classic Four Questions, the Mah Nishtana, that gets maggid underway, and the four questions posed by the four sons, each of whom has a different orientation to the seder.
Between these two sets of questions lay a few stories involving rabbis engaged in the mitzvah of the evening, sipur yetziat mitzrayim (the telling of the Exodus).
This is followed by a statement from R. Eleazar b. Azaryah:
Then, immediately preceding the four questions of the four sons, the Haggadah reads:
A grand theological declaration is made.
This whole bridge leading up to the four sons is intriguing. What is the meaning of this theological prelude? In what way, if any, does it serve as an introduction to the kinds of wise, wicked, simple, and inarticulate questions that follow? Might the rabbinic stories or characters introduced beforehand shape our read of these enigmatic inquiries?
I'd like to suggest that we investigate these four questions by way of another set of four. Four rabbis who famously enter the pardes, some of whom feature in the preceding paragraphs, namely Rabbi Akiva and Ben Zoma.
The relationship between these two sets of four has been suggested by the 15th century posek the Rashbatz, R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran (1361-1444), among others. Much more recently, Yehudah Kurtzer, in his book Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, indicated a similar connection.
Let us turn to the story of the four rabbis. Tosefta Chagigah 2:3 reads:
ארבעה נכנסו לפרדס בן עזיי ובן זומא אחר ור' עקיבא
אחד הציץ ומת אחד הציץ ונפגע אחד הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות ואחד עלה בשלום וירד בשלום. בן עזיי הציץ ומת עליו הכת' או' יָקָר, בְּעֵינֵי יקוק הַמָּוְתָה, לַחֲסִידָיו (תהילים קטז:טו). בן זומא הציץ ונפגע עליו הכת' או' דְּבַשׁ מָצָאתָ, אֱכֹל דַּיֶּךָּ [פֶּן-תִּשְׂבָּעֶנּוּ, וַהֲקֵאתוֹ](משלי כה:טז) אלישע הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתו' אומ' אַל תִּתֵּן אֶת פִּיךָ לַחֲטִיא אֶת בְּשָׂרֶךָ וגו' (קוהלת ה:ה).
Four entered into the pardes [orchard] – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha b. Abuyah] and R. Akiva. One looked and died. One looked and was stricken. One looked and trampled the shoots and one went up in peace and came down in peace [R. Akiva]. Ben Azzai looked and died – regarding him the verse says Grievous in God’s eyes are the death of his faithful ones (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma looked and was stricken - regarding him the verse says If you have found honey, eat what you need, [lest, surfeiting yourself, you throw it up] (Mishlei 25:16) Elisha looked and trampled the shoots - regarding him the verse says Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin ... (Kohelet 5:5).
The pardes is most frequently interpreted as a place of esoteric, mystical vision. Four great rabbis ascend toward a world in which divine secrets are revealed. The results of this encounter with mystery are decidedly not good though. Three out of four "look" (הציץ) upon the grandeur and are scarred. Ben Azzai dies. Ben Zoma goes mad. Elisha b. Abuyah, soon to be named Acher (the Other), "tramples the shoots." He leaves behind his commitment to the ways of the Torah. Only R. Akiva, who does not look, emerges unharmed. Questions abound: What happened in the pardes? What went wrong? What could have caused such extreme reactions? Why would Acher leave and why would the others (excluding Rabbi Akiva) have lost it, in one or another?
Many stories developed, in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, to offer color and cause for such disturbance, particularly Elisha's. Perhaps the challenge of theodicy gripped him, suggests the Jerusalem Talmud. Witnessing a man ascend a ladder to perform the life-extending mitzvah of sending away a mother bird only to die upon his descent: Perhaps that injustice overwhelmed Elisha. Or perhaps he watched as the tongue of R. Yehudah the baker, a tongue which had spoken much Torah, got paraded around in the mouth of a dog. "This is the Torah and this is its reward?!," he exclaimed in horror. "זו תורה וזו שכרה" (Jerusalem Talmud Chagiga 2:1). Moshe himself recites these very same words of outrage and confusion when he envisions another injustice, the ultimate torture of R. Akiva (see BT Menachot 29b). (Though he exited the pardes in peace, R. Akiva did not exit the world similarly.) It seems that the concerns of Acher are perhaps not so other after all. And yet he is doomed for life on account of his unwillingness to abide a Torah that did not account for the discordant realities of the world.
The tradition from the Babylonian Talmud is a lot more esoteric and complicated.
Upon entering the pardes, Elisha encountered Metatron, one of the highest angels in God's divine court doing something an angel should not do—sitting! In so doing, Metatron violated the tradition that Elisha had inherited, one that stated that angels only stand. Elisha's Torah, so to speak, bumped up against the Truth, and he was left to mediate that impossible gap. In the conflict between tradition and reality, between what he learned and what he saw, Acher sided with what was before his eyes.
Recognizing the way that Acher's struggles might presage our own, Yehudah Kurtzer writes:
Akiva's warning [in BT Chagigah 14b] demands dissonance, and asks Elisha to simultaneously hold onto his learning—his previously held knowledge—and to stand facing this jarring reality, and to hold the two together in perilous silence. I would suggest that this is both a virtually impossible task as well as an extremely common and contemporary challenge...But the more dramatic dissonance is a hallmark of the Jewish experience of modernity, the inevitable and unresolved conflict between those things we learn and those things we see, the systems of Jewish belief and the experiences of modern reality. The notion that we would hold, freeze, stand in suspended dissonance seems both impossible and highly desirable—and reflects perhaps the exact "failure" at the core of Elisha's experience in the pardes. The disappointment of this text lies in finding that Elisha is human, but not superhuman. (Y. Kurtzer, Shuva, p. 123-124)
Those of us privileged to inherit tradition will often be confronted by its implausibility. We are frequently asked to stand in the gaps between truths we receive and truths we perceive; to sit with cognitive dissonances that threaten our sense of coherence. We are then left with choices.
Like Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, we might feel compelled to give up on the world, exiting it entirely (Ben Azzai) or unable to see it clearly (Ben Zoma). Like Acher, we might feel compelled to give up on Torah. Or like Rabbi Akiva, who does not gaze at the pardes, we might either choose to look away from the conflict or to step into it, with balance and confident comfort in the discomfort.
Returning to the Haggadah, recall that we meet some of these characters again on Seder night. Elisha has been ostracized and Ben Azzai is dead, but Rabbi Akiva is up late learning and Ben Zoma is teaching about the night. (See above.) He seems to live in the fog of darkness, not quite seeing. They bring us to the four sons, who themselves are introduced with that enigmatic theological statement:
What is the place of theology here? I believe it is the grand Truth that the four children are contending with. Like the four rabbis before them, they each offer a challenge to—or an orientation toward—the world they are inheriting and the ways that it rubs up against the world as they see it. Metatron is sitting, so to speak, and they must each navigate that difficulty.
The wise child, the chacham, is like Rabbi Akiva, pious, focused, and in this world. He is interested in mitzvot, invested in the ways that this-worldly actions can be brought into conversation with the upper realms. He stays firmly within his inherited frame as he manages his internal instability.
The evil child, the rasha, is like Elisha, willing to exclude himself from a community whose relationship to Truth he can no longer trust. One who is unwilling to abide any cognitive dissonance cannot stay in community, these stories suggest, and so we say to the rasha, as was said to Acher, stay out. Yet, harsh as this judgement is, I believe that it is also subtly winks at us. Like Acher of the Talmud who, despite the heavenly decree against him, is not completely out of the community (he is still R. Meir's teacher and is also saved after death), so the rasha, for all of his wickedness, is still at the table. The Haggadah is haunted by the all-too-familiar character.
The last two categories are a bit murkier. The Rashbatz suggests that Ben Azzai is like the simple one, the tam, overwhelmed by his naivete or his single-mindedness. Yaacov was an "ish tam," after all, and hardly simple. Ben Azzai was known to be obsessed with learning Torah, so much so that he could not marry. He could not put down roots. (See BT Yevamot 63b) He could not fully be in this world. And Ben Zoma is like the one who cannot question, she’eino yodea lish'ol. So damaged was he that he could no longer formulate a question. He was muted into silence.
My aim here is not to map the four sons onto the four rabbis perfectly but to raise the possibility that the four children do not only offer four different approaches to the practice of Pesach, but four different approaches to one of the deepest challenges of the modern world: how to square truths with Truth; how to live with or in the gaps between all that we are taught and all that we cannot help but see. The time of “vehigadta l'bincha” is not only a chance to tell our collective story. It is a chance to reflect on the cognitive, existential, and spiritual challenges that emerge when we tell our story that way.
In the words of Kurtzer:
How we tell our stories is the process by which we own the past and, in turn, the means by which we chart the future with confidence and authenticity. The rabbis not only end their story with a saved Elisha, they implicitly tell us that their story and our story are best routed through him. Ben Zoma and ben Azzai are gone, Rabbi Akiva is inaccessible, but Elisha is most closely us—occupying a place of dissonance, struggling with his choices, making those around him struggle with their choices, and ultimately departing and making us feel conflicted as to whether his struggles were his own or ours, whether he failed us, we failed him, or whether no one failed at all. The story becomes one of a loss of commandedness, seeing and its consequences, of love and its sacrifices, and ultimately of return and restoration: not in Elisha’s lifetime, but in how we narrate his story. (Y. Kurtzer, Shuva, p. 132-133)