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Parashat Bo’: Moving Toward Multiple Truths

by Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits | Published on January 22, 2010

Three hasidim were once brag­ging about their rebbes: “My rebbe is the greatest and most powerful of all,” said the first. “Once he was walking and there was a big lake in his path – he had no boat, no way, seem­ingly, to continue his journey. He waved his hand­ker­chief, and there was lake on the right, lake on the left, but no lake in the middle.” To which the second hasid retorted, “That’s nothing. My rebbe is even greater still. He was walking, and there was a huge moun­tain in his path – there was no way for him to get home. He waved his hand­ker­chief, and there was moun­tain on the right, moun­tain on the left, but no moun­tain in the middle!” Said the third, “Ha! That is still nothing! My rebbe is the most powerful of all! He was walking once on Shabbos and there was a wallet crammed full of cash in his path. He waved his hand­ker­chief, and it was Shabbos on the right, Shabbos on the left, but not Shabbos in the middle!” So, he picked up the wallet, put it in his pocket, and headed home!

While the joke is meant to poke fun at the hasid’s obedi­ence to his tzaddik, and his naive belief in the rebbe’s magical powers, its punch line – where the tzaddik is able to liter­ally move the day of rest – when God’s calendar “stops us in our tracks” – isn’t actu­ally that radical a notion in Judaism.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of the command­ment to estab­lish a lunar based Jewish calendar, to set the advent of Passover.

ויאמר יהוה אל משה ואהרן בארץ מצרים לאמר 1 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:
החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים: ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה 2 This month shall mark for you the begin­ning of the months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.

As the first break in the narra­tive arc of the book of Exodus, these verses became the starting point for the Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael– the earliest code of justi­fied Rabbinic law. There, in the opening to Parashah Bet, we read

ישמעאל אומר: משה הראה את החדש לישראל כזה היו רואים וקובעים את החדש לדורות Rabbi Ishmael said: Moses showed the month to Israel, and said to them:
This is how you shall see, and set the new months for gener­a­tions to come.

According to the Rabbinic under­standing of these two verses, they estab­lish the Jewish people’s oblig­a­tion to declare the appear­ance of each new moon, to set a calendar by the moon, and thereby decide when God’s holy days will fall – really not so far off from the third tzaddik in the punch line of my joke, the one who took control of the Sabbath.

The system of how to set the lunar calendar each month – founded by the Ancient Rabbis, and based on the sparse decree in our parashah – appeals to me greatly in the “search for truth” that tradi­tion under­stands God having granted to B’nai Yisrael as their first mitzvah as a nation. Humanity, we are told, is empow­ered to deter­mine when each month begins, when holi­days will stop our work, and when we all shall serve God. God, in the Rabbinic imag­i­na­tion, makes the discerning watcher of the sky master of God’s celebrations.

But is this a good thing – to search for a single time, a single occa­sion for approaching God to be used by all people – or even all Jews?

We see the danger of this search for one truth detailed almost concur­rently to our Mechilta text, this time in the Mishnah – the roughly contem­po­rary rabbinic compendium of fixed law. After detailing quite care­fully the proce­dure of how witnesses should appear before the rabbinic court, and testify to having seen the new moon, we find a tale of dispute between two of the most influ­en­tial second century Rabbis – Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua. These rabbis disagree in the Mishnah about whether to accept certain ques­tion­able testi­mony for declaring a new month.

Rabban Gamliel, as the polit­ical leader of the commu­nity, refused to tolerate his colleague’s dissent. To enforce his calendar as the only accept­able one, he insisted that his oppo­nent, Rabbi Joshua, appear before him – staff and wallet in hand – on the day that would be Yom Kippur according to Joshua’s calcu­la­tion, forcing him to trans­gress the prohi­bi­tions of carrying, and of commerce, on what he believed to be the holiest day of the year! Rabbi Joshua is forced to become a tragic version of the third rebbe, the one who picked up a wallet on Shabbat in our joke.

What reason, however, might Rabban Gamliel have had for accepting those confused and self contra­dic­tory witnesses in the first place? According to Maimonides, Gamliel, as well as Joshua, under­stood that the testi­mony of those two witnesses was fishy, but Rabban Gamliel relied on his own astro­nom­ical calcu­la­tions to confirm their other­wise shaky, and even inad­mis­sible, statement.

While, according to Maimonides’ inter­pre­ta­tion, Rabban Gamliel preferred his “scien­tific truth,” his lunar charts, for deciding when the holi­days would be set, Rabbi Joshua would only rely on a more tradi­tional form – the testi­mony of two indi­vid­uals – even at the expense of his colleague’s more “accu­rate” calendar!

Two types of truth clash in this Mishnah. The truth of science and calcu­la­tion, and the truth of human witness and expe­ri­ence. At least here, the truth of calcu­la­tion wins. Approaching rabbinic texts like those we just exam­ined, I entered the semi­nary with many advan­tages, a leg up perhaps on some of my colleagues and class­mates. Growing up attending day schools, I was priv­i­leged to be exposed to Torah and Talmud – and gained a famil­iarity with them. Perhaps even more than my day school expe­ri­ence, I learned to love the study of Torah from my father – with whom I first learned Mishnah as a small boy. Under my mother’s guid­ance I was also exposed – at a distinct advan­tage from many of my yeshiva class­mates – to serious crit­ical study of liter­a­ture, in the classes and program­ming she pushed and encour­aged me to enrich my life with.

It was not until I was a second semester college freshman at Brandeis University that I was first exposed to the crit­ical analyses of the holy texts I had known since my child­hood. Mussar Avi and Torat Imi – modern crit­ical analysis and Torah study – had been brought together. Wissenschaft des Judentums – the scien­tific study of Jewish texts – rocked my world in a terri­fying and exciting way.

It was my desire to pursue the study of Torah and our tradi­tion truth­fully — the very same truth which I believed God had endowed humanity the ability to apply in discerning God’s holy days — that drew me to apply for rabbinical school at JTS – the center of that type of study in the United States.

For the first three years of rabbinical school I was fulfilled by this project – this search for scien­tific truth in Torah. It was not until my fourth year of rabbinical school, in Israel, that I began to look for more; for a reli­gious and spir­i­tual fulfill­ment in my studies beyond the search for the empir­ical answers to ques­tions of text and faith.

As an 18 year old boy I had fallen in love with the holy land, when I spent a year studying there in yeshiva. During the spring of that year, I was fortu­nate to study b’havruta – one on one – with an Israeli kollel student more than two-decades my senior. Daniel had served in a tank unit on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, and had studied at Mercaz HaRav Kook, absorbing its National Religious ideology. I was moved and moti­vated by his teaching. The most unfor­get­table moment of that year was the eve of Yom Yerushalayim, when we danced and sang our way from Mount Scopus, through East Jerusalem, for a sunrise minyan in the kotel tunnels.

When I returned to Israel for my fourth year of rabbinical school the truth I thought I knew about Israel was chal­lenged. I began to feel anger at the reli­gious author­i­ties in Israel who governed marriage, divorce, conver­sion, and adop­tion. I was terri­fied by the power holy men wielded over poli­tics, and over large parts of the city in which I lived. And I was saddened that I could not pray, along­side Rachel, in an egal­i­tarian service at the kotel.

I also took the oppor­tu­nity that year – under the guid­ance of Encounter – to learn about a different side of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. My concep­tion of the sepa­ra­tion barrier, of road­blocks, and of Jewish only roads became far more nuanced. I was shat­tered by the expe­ri­ence of walking the streets of Hebron, seeing a holy city cont­a­m­i­nated by hatred and violence. I still felt grateful throughout the year for the safety provided to me by the sepa­ra­tion barrier when I played tennis within its view, but I was far more cognizant of, and conflicted about, the price with which that safety had been bought. I learned that secu­rity – and the needs of Israel’s many citi­zens and subjects were not about a simple list or code of truths. Rather that each person’s lives – both my kollel friend Daniel’s, and the family I met whose house had been repeat­edly demol­ished by the IDF – are intri­cately woven together. That one person’s happi­ness, safety and comfort might be bought at the expense of another’s suffering, loss and pain. Truth could not be easily calcu­lated or quan­ti­fied, what this situ­a­tion called for was the witness of trust­worthy indi­vid­uals – the truth of Rabbi Joshua.

Following the joys, chal­lenges and growth of our year together in Israel, Rachel and I decided that we wanted to spend a second year in the Jerusalem. During the summer, while home in the States, we rejoiced when we found out that Rachel was preg­nant, and that our first child would be born in the Holy Land. Yet, while on the last legs of our journey, our preg­nancy became diffi­cult and endan­gered, and we slowly real­ized that we would have to stay put, and abandon our exciting plans for the coming year.

During that time in limbo, I enrolled in two consec­u­tive units of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital. My expe­ri­ence there, of providing pastoral care to a most diverse body of suffering indi­vid­uals – while I dealt with my complex array of emotions surrounding our preg­nancy and later Alexander’s birth – brought me even closer to appre­ci­ating the truth of Rabbi Joshua. The bright but schiz­o­phrenic man who sought out my ear to review his confused reli­gious ponder­ings, the dying cancer patient who I witnessed lose her power of speech, and another speech­less patient who I met with as she slowly moved toward recovery, but strug­gled with a new set of fears around her impending release from the hospital. All of these wounds and heal­ings, these accu­sa­tions and moments of praise to God, became part of my rabbinic narra­tive, along with the suffering of Rabbi Joshua – forced to publicly trans­gress his Yom Kippur, submit­ting himself to the authority of his former student.

Reflecting on the mitzvah of kiddush ha’hodesh — of declaring the new lunar month – during my last semester of rabbinical school, I now believe that it is not only about looking for one absolute, quan­tifi­able truth – the truth of Rabban Gamliel’s lunar charts, but also about seeking out and finding the many indi­vidual, conflicting truths, the non-empirical evidence of a trusted human witness. This I now believe is a crucial part of the charge we were given by God in the infancy of our nation­hood, along with the power to control God’s time. It is a mitzvah that must balance the control of our brains, with the compas­sion of our hearts.

Can we listen to the suffering, the wisdom, and the expe­ri­ences of others with the open­ness not only to allow them to be who they are – a sense of “accep­tance” – but with an even greater open­ness that might allow their story to enter our hearts, and even change us?

Listening in this way, the word’s of our parashah, החדש הזה לכם – “this month shall be for you,” testify to a system that allows each indi­vidual to create his or her own month, and his or her own truth. We can’t really know for certain when the new moon will be in the orig­inal Rabbinic system, but we accept, none the less, the imper­fect truth of the indi­vidual witnesses.

My b’rakhah, my blessing, to all of us this Shabbat, is that we find the energy to access both of these strengths: The genius, the brain power, the God given gift of our minds – to discern and calcu­late empir­ical truth when we can; but also the heart, the soul, the ears – to listen to the testi­mony of the lives of others, and allow that truth to pene­trate us and change us, as well.

Rabbi Pelcovits deliv­ered this as his Senior Sermon at JTS.

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