This is my D'var Torah for Shabbat, Parashat Va-era, January 13, 2024. It also reminds me of a Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave in 2022/5783, "Right-ology: How To Be Right Better in the New Year"
In August we went down to New York for the simchat bat celebration for our newest grandniece, and when we were hanging out with the family afterward at the synagogue, my daughter Lela was playing with R. and P., and she offered to give them piggyback rides. I think it was R. who got the first ride, so P. began to scream that it was unfair, so Lela said how about I give you two rides. And then of course R. began to scream -- that’s unfair! -- and this went back and forth for a minute when I though I might help.
I tried a trick I learned from Laurie which she learned from her mom, Iris z”l, which is to distract a kid with some other words. And I thought the way I would do this was to bring my moral-educator skills to bear. So I said to one of them, R. I think, “What’s fair?”
And there was a pause for about a second, and can you guess what she said to my question?
R. said: “It’s not fair!”
At which point I left Lela to her own devices.
So R. was right about one particular thing, which I’ll tell her when she’s old enough to get it but I’ll tell you now. In Judaism, we say that we value questioning. We value it a lot, and sometimes we even say that questioning is the essence of Judaism. Questioning what everyone takes for granted, questioning authority, even questioning God. It’s why Jews are often b’gadol, in the big scheme, revolutionaries and social critics, and scientific innovators, and litigators.
What R. was responding to is something else which we also say is the essence of Torah, which is knowing right and wrong. We look to Torah for absolute moral principles, which b’gadol is also why Jews have been among the leading activists for civil rights and human rights, in any country we are in and around the globe.
Questioning and having absolute moral conviction are not the same thing.
R. was saying now is the time for moral conviction, not for questioning.
Sometimes questioning is the opposite of what the Torah wants. When Par’oh says “Who is the Divine, mi Adonai, that I should listen and release the people”, that is not: Ah, Moshe, you’ve brought me an interesting theological perspective I’ve never encountered. I have some questions, perhaps we could discuss divinity and its implications for social ethics.
No, this is Par’oh questioning something we don’t think should be questioned. People shouldn’t enslave other people, period-full-stop.
And even if Par’oh had said: Let’s talk about this God of yours and the implications for our current labor situation -- this was not a situation for questions like that. This was a situation for moral certainty.
It’s not just that certain things should be beyond question. It’s that if what you mostly know how to do is question, it’s hard to build up the commitment you need to follow through, or to stand up for someone. Sometimes questioning can prevent us from believing that we know right from wrong. We think: if you can formulate a question about this conviction, then maybe it’s not a conviction. But you need to be certain about something in order to fight for it, especially when the people who are convinced of the immoral opposite are certain and fight from that certainty.
Let me give you one example from the week, and I want to say something about it from this lens and then come back to from another angle. Israel is right now before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, responding to an accusation that the war in Gaza constitutes genocide.
To me this particular charge is in the category of when questioning is not spiritual strengthening but leads you astray. When you are in a just war, against an enemy that is real and continues to be dangerous on a day-to-day basis, when you make efforts even though they are imperfect to distinguish combatants from noncombatants by helping them escape the fighting so they won’t be killed and giving warning and even a map and schedule of the fighting -- raising the question of genocide is profoundly confused. And Israeli actions to take account of the human rights and humanitarian needs of Gazans aren't a ruse to cover up genocide or genocidal intent. Gaza isn’t some kind of Theresinstadt, that if no one was looking the whole area and all its people would be bombed to the ground.
On this issue there is moral certainty that self-defense is right and a enemy itself genocidal deserves to be fought.
Considering genocide on the part of Israel as though this were a real question, worthy of the international court, doesn’t further any moral certainty at all -- no matter what the court rules, and may they have the wisdom to rule justly. No result of this case, or of parallel actions on university campuses, will strengthen a moral principle in the world or in anyone’s mind.
The parasha and the Exodus story more broadly do teach us about the questions you should ask even in a situation where much is morally clear and absolute. I have this question of my own -- why does God insist so often that the purpose of the plagues is so that Par’oh and the Egyptians will know the Divine? Why doesn’t God say: It’s so they will know that slavery is immoral. Surely that’s a moral certainty that ought to come before anything else.
In fact, while the Torah is teaching us about moral certainty in Egypt, the Torah is also teaching about questioning at the same time.
The parasha begins with this interesting revelation by the Divine to Moshe. God says: I appeared to your ancestors in Genesis as El Shaddai, but by my name, Y-H-V-H, I was not known to them. (Exodus 6:3)
The commentators interpret this to mean that there was something about the One that Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov knew with certainty, and that there was something they didn’t know. Rav Ovadia Seforno says that they never stretched what they knew for certain beyond their own experience, and therefore couldn’t really pass on to their children what their moral convictions would mean for their lifetimes.
And Sara Wolkenfeld teaches a midrash from Shmot Rabbah which says the same thing this way: that before Moshe no one who really knew God ever asked questions at all, particularly when what they knew for certain from the Divine was contradicted by what was happening before their eyes.
They never asked why if the land was being promised to them they were continually fighting the people there, or finding it hard to dig a well, or I suppose why sacrificing my son was a coherent thing to do. They never even asked how their enslavement was supposed to be part of the big picture.
But Moshe asked the Divine at the burning bush: Who are You? What’s your name? I know that slavery in Egypt is wrong, and I tried to do something way back but I couldn’t, so what’s going on that you think I can help change this?
This is a questioning which is grounded in moral certainty. Which asks -- if I know this is right and I know this is wrong, how should I apply it? What do I need to do? What don’t I understand yet? What detail about the big principle might I be getting wrong -- or might you be getting wrong? (Even the angels by the way in one grueseome midrash ask God: If this oppression is so wrong, why do You allow babies to be baked into the bricks that Your people are still being forced to make?)
So Moshe reaches a level where he can ground himself in certainty and challenge Par’oh and also continue to ask questions of the Divine, about what flows further from his moral certainty and what he is charged with teaching the people.
And the Divine continues to say in our parasha and next week’s too and beyond that that it’s not enough to say slavery here and today is wrong, but knowing Me means knowing that the Exodus means something forever, in other places and times, and you will have to keep asking each other about that.
So we can and must ask questions about Israel and Palestine, and the war and its conduct and what comes after. We ask them out of our certainties about a Zionism of moral excellence and out of the certainly that all human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim (in the Divine image). Indeed these questions will strengthen and deeper our deepest moral convictions about right and wrong.
We can and must ask about how the Exodus certainties stretch out to civil rights and equality in the United States. What now, and what toward the future, and what have we been missing in this story, all of these we should ask as we mark this important weekend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
Some of these wise questions might be very challenging ones, ones that feel every bit as uncomfortable as the genocide quote-unquote “question.” But the point isn’t the doubt; the point is to question in service of conviction. This is the questioning of the chacham in the Pesach Seder, the wise child. Who is convinced that there are important testimonies and laws, and wants to dive further. As opposed to the one she-eino yode’a lish’ol, who doesn’t know to ask questions in the right spirit. I know that my grandnieces R. and P. will understand that one day, because of their parents and the great teachers they want for them.
The Torah calls of this throughout the Exodus narrative “knowing the Divine”, Yediat Hashem. To remind us that it’s impossible to know everything we need to about our certainties but that they are highest thing to strive for. Yediat Hashem is where certainty and questioning meet and then stretch higher. That’s the questioning that is indeed at the heart of Judaism, and as one of our most famous questions asks: If not now, when?