Passover D’var Torah from Pardes Student

I just loved this D’var Torah that Pardes Student Rabbi Alice Dubinsky wrote for the Pardes alumni newsletter. I think it is wonderful that someone like her took the time to enrich her learning. I hope the D’var will give you a taste of the type of learning and the wonderful pieces of Torah that are unearthed at here.

D’var Torah from Current Pardes Student, Rabbi Alice Dubinsky

My family and I came to Jerusalem this year on sabbatical. My husband David and I mostly came for our children, Zachary and Hannah, who are 5 and 7. We put them in the local public school and after three months, they sound like Israelis. Neither David nor I will ever have their Hebrew skills no matter how much we study. We started too late. David is at ulpan, and I am spending my time here at Pardes. Most of my Pardes classmates are in their twenties and could be my children. They know so much: reams of Talmud, the subtleties of biblical grammar, and the philosophy of Jewish law. They also stay up really, really late at night hanging out in the Beit Midrash learning stuff that isn’t required. Hardly anyone misses class. So why does a 43 year old, who has been toiling in the fields of HaShem as a congregational rabbi for the last 15 years, spend my precious sabbatical with 20-somethings who remind me that I will never know as much Torah as they do?

In Masechet Pesachim of the Talmud, a minor scholar named Abaye, was invited to the seder of his teacher, Rabbah. A couple of thousand years later, my Talmud teacher at Pardes invited us to her seder table. She gave me the heads up that the meal is usually served around 11:30 pm. With fear and trembling we accepted the invitation, but we had a lot of questions. None of us had been to an Orthodox seder, let alone at the home of my teacher. Abaye, knew my pain. While still at the beginning of the seder his teacher Rabbah ordered the servants to clear all the dishes from the table. Surprised, Abaye asked, “Ma Nishtana!?? Why this change? Why are you removing the table before we have even eaten the meal?” Rabbah exclaimed, “Your question has served the same function as the usual four questions of Ma Nishtana. Let’s dispense with those set questions and proceed directly to the telling of the story.” (Talmud Pesachim 115b)

Imagine, one of the rabbis of the Talmud, the fellows who brought you the seder in the first place, dispensing with the very formula the rabbis created, in favor of spontaneous questions. That is what makes Judaism a living tradition. But it is not questions at the beginning of the seder I would like to discuss. It is the last question of the seder that interests me. “Echad, Mi Yodeah?” “Who knows one?” Was this intended as a children’s song? While the Talmud tells us we should sing songs at the end of the seder “to keep the children awake,” (Pes.108b-109a) I don’t believe this song was intended for children and I do think, that despite its rousing melody, it is meant to induce a certain kind of sleep.

Who knows one? The song has thirteen verses, and coincidentally, the letters in number one, echad, Aleph-chet-dalet, in Gematria adds up to the number thirteen. Therefore, thirteen brings us to one. In our Torah Moses implores God “Let me behold your face!” And God says, “No you can’t see my face, you can see my back.” At that moment God exclaimed thirteen attributes, thirteen qualities describing God’s self. God passed by Moses, Moses looked at God’s back and it was as if Moses was, for the first time seeing the world while looking through God. As God cried out the thirteen attributes Moses saw the Oneness of all creation.

This is the question that the entire seder is really posing to the Jewish people. Do you know One? Have you perceived Oneness, can you recognize God’s unity in every moment, in every action? We Jews have a strange ambivalence about God’s Oneness. On the one hand, twice daily we recite the shema – God is One. And yet we conclude our service with the Aleinu prayer which says Bayom hahu – on that day Adonai Echad, ushmo echad – God shall be one and God’s name shall be one. Which is it? Is God one now or later? Emerson wrote, “Only God is one, we are in pieces.” He was right. But the brokenness is our reality. Viewed through the lens of our reality – a reality filled with violence, despoliation of the earth and abuse of power – it all seems shattered and that only at some future time, “on that day,” we will be able to perceive the One of God.

Except, when we sleep. In the unconscious world there is no separation. That unconscious world is accessible through sleep, through prayer and through the doing of mitzvahs. At the end of the seder meal, when my eyelids feel the weight of gravity bearing down on them, Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the prophet gives me a glimpse, not only of what might be, but also of what really is. This year in Jerusalem, the city of peace. In the dream state, anything is possible. Likewise in prayer. When we lift up our voices in song welcoming the Torah from her ark as if God were handing her to us for the very first time me there is no before or after, no past or future, just eternal oneness.

Who knows one? Thirteen verses, thirteen questions, thirteen answers. One is HaShem two are the tablets of the law, three are the patriarchs, four are the matriarchs, five are the books of the Torah, six are the orders of the Mishnah, seven are the days until Shabbat and so on and so on. And I realize all of those things – the tablets of the law, the patriarchs and matriarchs the Torah, the Mishnah, this shabbos, lead me to thirteen. The thirteen attributes of God which add mysteriously up to one.

This is why God brought us out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, that we might study and cherish the Torah. That despite our impressive secular educations, material success and professional accomplishments we might be willing to admit how little of our tradition we have mastered. I pine to know as much Gemara as the average 18 year old day-school graduate. I wish my congregants with PhDs in subjects I can’t pronounce, could read Hebrew and understand it as intimately as they understand the periodic table.

God made us free to embrace Torah and Mitzvot and deeds of kindness. We were taken out of slavery to live the Hesed shel Avraham; the kindness of our patriarch Abraham. And yes, that means treating difficult, annoying relatives as if they were messengers of God. That we might delight in the Sabbath and bring nearer the day when there is no division between the conscious and the unconscious. When sleeping or waking we see the world as Moses did, as if God were before us. Everything is unity; every person can glow in our eyes with the spark of the Divine. Even that one relative who still asks me what I plan to do with my life. Bayom Hahu. On that day God shall be one and God’s name shall be one.

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One response to “Passover D’var Torah from Pardes Student

  1. HIII !

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