A few weeks after moving to the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, a neighbor invited me to his home, and showing me his recently re-furbished dining room with its the long oak wood table, declared ‘the shabbos table is the center-piece of family education.’ Funny, I remember thinking to myself, our shabbos table is often the center-piece of family food-fighting. So if I’ve given an overly idealized impression of my family, I’m coming clean. Though I think it’s important to weave rich and positive stories for and about the family, it’s obviously not the whole picture.
In the Torah portion of from last week, those who had been excluded from the experience of Pesach come to Moses and ask: ‘why should we be diminished? we may have been ritually impure, but why shouldn’t we also get the chance to participate in the Passover ritual?’ They felt ‘diminished’ for not having had the opportunity to do a mitzvah–an amazing notion! So they ask Moses for a second chance. Though Moses is the greatest of all prophets, these laws were concealed to him. But upon relaying the question to G-d, the laws of Pesach Sheni–the ‘second Pesach’ for those who missed it the first time around–are revealed. The laws had been withheld from Moses so that, in the divine plan, those whom Rashi describes as ‘meritorious’ ask the question leading to further divine revelation. A question, as R. Yerucham from the Mir Yeshiva explains, already shows chachma or wisdom, because through it, one cultivates the possibility of a response. A good question–any teacher or parents knows this–allows for the bringing to light of something which otherwise would have remained unsaid. This sort of question is to be distinguished from those questions which are just dressed up answers; refusals to engage seriously; or ways of ending conversations before they start. But an engaged question is the means through which the concealed becomes revealed: the whole Torah, says R. Yerucham, is actually a response to Moses’s questions!
I thought this would be a great entry point to a discussion at our shabbos table. Notwithstanding a recent NY Times piece advocating the contrary, my wife and I divide our labors (confession: I don’t know how to use the washing machine!). At the shabbos table, even though my wife studies regularly, and arranges a weekly lecture (often in our house), I’m the one who usually initiates the words of Torah. With the same theatricality that I display when tasting the challos which my wife bakes, she introduces my divrei Torah. True, there was a time when both my divrei Torah and her challos (she started, years ago, with home ground organic wheat flour–which was like making motzie on compressed hockey pucks) needed work, but we’ve both become more proficient in our respective roles. I thought the ‘Questions’ topic would make a great discussion for the kids: ‘Have any of you had any questions this week?’ My son returned that a question occured to him, but he didn’t ask because his rebbe wouldn’t have known the answer (unlikely); one of my daughters said הכל מובן לי–or ‘I already understand everything!’ (extremely unlikely). One of my other daughters was already on the couch reading a book; and my youngest was still at the shabbos table, but singing a song (though not even a shabbos song). I paused, surveyed the situation, sighed, and gave up: ‘will someone pass the cholent please?’
After lunch, I was hoping my wife might offer some consolation. She reminded me that R. Yitzchock Hutner wrote in a letter to a distressed student that the verse in Psalms–‘A tzaddik falls seven times’–doesn’t mean that even though he falls many times, the true tzaddik will eventually emerge. Rather when a true tzaddik finally does come into being, it’s because he’s fallen. Acknowledging personal failure and integrating those failures allows–in the end–for a person to reveal the tzaddik within. We become great because of our challenges, not in spite of them. It’s almost as if, in the endless interplay between concealment and revelation, challenges are the questions which help us to reveal who we are. R. Hutner refers to internal battles, but sometimes, as my wife pointed out, the world doesn’t accomodate the idealism of our plans, and one has to learn to live with those kinds of failures as well. Things sometimes don’t go the way you want.
This article was originally posted here.