Sermon: The rebellious son at Yom HaShoah

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 9 April 2010

Every year when I think back on Pesach, the thing that stays with me is the imagery of the Rasha – the rebellious child, the contrary child, with his question – ‘what does this service mean to you?’

Each year I am struck not really by his words but by his very presence in the Haggadah.  I am struck by the fact that our tradition, in its wisdom, in its astonishing realism, recognises that he is necessary:  Within every family there is a rasha – not a wicked child, but an individual who seeks, who demands that we address the tough questions.  A voice that is rebellious and defiant.

Indeed, such a voice can be heard within each of us.  When I was growing up – one of four sons – none of us wanted to be the goody-two-shoes or the simple on Seder night.  As the youngest I was condemned to be the one who did not know how to ask, but in common with my siblings, I wanted to be the rasha – to express the voice that refuses to be quiet.  That rejects the simplistic answers of religion but asks ‘what does all this mean to you?’

And the wonder of the Haggadah is that it knows this.  The Haggadah recognises this aspect of us.  On a night when we might expect of our tradition that it demands consensus and silence, it even provides that voice with words.

This recognition of the existence of the questioner is true elsewhere in our tradition.  In rabbinic literature we find examples of voices that challenge the establishment – even the fundamentals of Jewish theology.  Examples of individuals who challenge, yet have not been expunged from the record.

So in the Talmuds we find stories of Elisha ben Abuyah a sage who came to reject Judaism despite his vast learning.

There are a number of traditions about him – that he rode his horse on Shabbat near the study hall, that, according to one tradition he collaborated with the Romans, that he engaged in the study of secular materials.

But there is near agreement on what happened to provoke this reaction in this scholar.  The Talmud tells the story that once he was sitting and learning outside when he saw a man climb up to the top of a tree, where he took the mother bird from a nest together with the young chicks and then the man came down safely. The next day he saw another man climb up to the top of a tree but this man, in accordance with the teaching of the Torah, only took the young after shooing away the mother. But when he came down, a snake bit him and the man died.

We are told that Elisha exclaimed, “But it is written in the Torah: Do not take the mother together with her young, let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may live well and have a long life.  Where is the welfare of this man? Where is the long life of this man?  Another tradition is that Elisha, at the time of the Roman persecutions, saw the tongue of Rabbi Yehuda the Baker carried in the mouth of a dog. And so, in response, he said, “This is Torah and this is its reward? This is the tongue that used to bring forth fitting words of Torah? This is the tongue that laboured in Torah all its days? It seems that there is no giving of reward and there is no resurrection of the dead.” Or, in another version he proclaimed – leit din v’leit dayan – there is no judgement and no judge and so he rejected Jewish practice.  Another example of the rebellious voice is found in earlier traditions from the period of the Mishnah – the period up to about 200 CE.  In the Mishnah we are told that the family of Bilgah, a particular group of priests were given a subordinate role and geographical position in the life of the Temple.  And why? According to the Tosefta – a collection of legal traditions from the same period but not found in the Mishnah – the source of this law is in the story of Miriam, a daughter of Bilgah.

Apparently she too became an apostate.  She even went so far, it is said, as to marry an officer of the ‘Greek kingdom’ – that is, a Roman officer.  It is reported that when the Romans entered the Temple, Miriam entered with them.  At the heart of the temple she took off her sandal and knocked with it on the altar, and she exclaimed to God: “Wolf, wolf! How long will you consume the resources of Israel, yet not help them in their time of need!” – In other words, how long will you accept the sacrifices of Israel and then not spring to their defence when they really need you?

Her words would condemn her family to a subordinate role in the life of the temple but like Elisha’s they are more than merely meaningless rejection but reveal something wonderful in our tradition.

For what do these challengers have in common – Miriam and Elisha?   Like the Rasha, both are defiant, both angry, both accusatory.  Both grow away from their Judaism, both engage with other traditions.  Both, like many of us, are torn between faith and reason, group loyalty and assimilation.  Like the rasha they speak for many of us.  And like our inner rasha their rebellion is not without cause.

At the heart of both their stories is the problem of suffering – both characters face an impossible theological question.  One of them, Elisha, witnesses individual suffering and he cannot reconcile it with the divine providence described in Torah, and thus with continuing his Jewish life. The other, Miriam, perceives divine abandonment on the national level as she watches the Romans destroy the Temple, and it affirms her rejection of her Jewish identity.

Theirs’ are very modern stories in very ancient texts.  They express an inner voice that many of us own, especially after the Shoah, which we will commemorate this weekend.

Yet what is wondrous is that they are there within our tradition.  It is pretty clear that our sages did not know quite what to do with them, but there they are – in our formative texts asking the questions that we might ask.  Though we might expect it to demand silence and consensus, our tradition does not pretend that we do not face difficult questions – some too hard to ever answer satisfactorily. Rather, their questions, like that of the rebellious son, speak for us and challenge us.

What stays with me after Pesach is, of course, the presence of the rasha – like a modern day Elisha ben Abuyah sat at our table.  Like the sages of old, it is clear that we do not really know how to answer them.   The answer of the Haggadah to the rasha – that he would not have been redeemed is entirely useless – just like the attitude of his contemporaries to Elisha ben Abuyah, whom they called acher – the other – refusing even to use his name, just like the punishment of Miriam and her family.  The answer to the rasha reflects a desire to push the question away.

But the answer that we should really give to our children who demand of us ‘what does this mean to you?’ and to our own inner voice – the answer should really be one of gratitude and wonder.  For despite our pain, despite the deeply difficult, perhaps impossible question he wants to ask – the rasha is still there at the seder table, and so too are Elisha and Miriam.  And so too, in synagogue this morning, in the face of the unanswerable realities of human suffering, so too are we.