‘To be Jewish is to ask questions’

To be Jewish is to ask questions. Our Talmud, by insisting we question, allows us to doubt. As Jews celebrate … Continued

To be Jewish is to ask questions. Our Talmud, by insisting we question, allows us to doubt. As Jews celebrate Passover with the Seder meal where traditionally the youngest person at the table asks four questions; or as I think of it, one question with four examples: What does it mean to be Jewish?

As we read the Haggadah — the book which guides the ritual meal that traces the Israelites’ delivery from bondage in Egypt — our children ask questions as a way of understanding the story of the Exodus and their place among the Jewish people. As we ask, we participate in the telling of our own story and reeducate ourselves on our origins and purpose. To disengage from this telling, the Magid as it is called in Hebrew, is to declare apathy, and is the most treasonous act a Jew can commit. To learn more, to challenge yourself to think more deeply, is one of the central tenets of the Jewish religion.

In the telling of the Passover story, we also attempt to discern an answer to what is among the most profound questions we can pose: How does one live a meaningful Jewish life? When we share the texts of our people, such as the Exodus story, we are learning values and seeing examples of what it means to live a Jewish life. Through Jewish education, we learn how to apply those ancient writings to today’s complex world.

We may be reading about plagues, bondage and the parting of seas, but what we examine are the moral values that lie at the core of the Jewish enterprise—an enterprise today that is more complex than ever. If that’s true today, imagine how Moses must have felt when he led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt during biblical times.

The Haggadah does not mention Moses. This is largely due to rabbinic editorial decisions to give credit to miracles performed by God, rather than the man who worked on his behalf. While many debate the theological aspects of Moses, I’m more focused on what his trials and tribulations as a leader say about the Jewish people. Why is leading the Jewish people such a difficult business? Who answers the call for such a challenge? Is it a quality that someone is born with or is it formed?

Moses being left out of the Haggadah is almost as ironic as the fact that he was not allowed to enter the homeland he led the slaves towards after 40 years of wandering through the desert. I often wonder how a man who is arguably the most powerful leader in Jewish history would feel to find his name left out of the story we tell around our tables. Angry? Sad? Perhaps he’d even be relieved to no longer have to carry the burden of the narrative. Moses led the Jewish people a long time. I’m sure at some point he was just tired.

Moses has always fascinated me. The son of slaves who was hidden in a basket in the reeds, found by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised as an Egyptian royal. His first act of leadership was when he intervened on behalf of a slave being beaten by his master. He knew what he was seeing was wrong, and he took action because he knew it was the right things to do. Although he was a prince, he saw himself in the oppressed and went about avenging their abuse.

A stutterer who had trouble speaking, his first call to leadership was action. He burned with an uncontrollable instinct towards justice, to protect the weak, even at risk to himself and his station. Moses acted against what was expected of him because he knew it was right. Conversely, he also rebelled against God commanding him to lead the Israelites from slavery—causing God to perform miracles from turning a snake into a staff, through the bush that burned with fire but was not consumed—until he finally accepted his responsibility to lead.

I think leaders are born with instincts towards boldness which are then honed. A leader has to have a great deal of security, a goal, and a belief in the cause being fought for—and not only ask bold questions himself, but be unafraid to be questioned. A great leader also has a deep sensitivity to the wants and needs of those he or she is leading, even when it might be exasperating to listen.

To be a leader one has to be rebellious. If you do not have the character to challenge things as they are, you won’t have the ability to envision a new future, much less lead people towards it—a process during which they will often be fearful and doubting. People may complain about the status quo, but they are often comfortable with it. Moses encountered just that as the Israelites challenged him at every turn. They built a golden calf, behaved recklessly, complained, and rebelled themselves. After forty years I imagine Moses was more annoyed and exhausted by the people he lead out of bondage, than endeared to them.

The difficulty of leadership vary according to the cause, the personality of the leader and of those who are led. As the Bible shows, and as we know in modern times, Jews are very hard to lead, which can be a good thing. We don’t settle on or accept anything easily, but the rigorousness of that process usually ensures a fair outcome. Jews argue, we put people to the test, but we unite and organize we do so in an unparalleled manner. Still, working in Jewish leadership capacities has been among the most meaningful and exhilarating experiences of my life.

The importance of celebrating Passover lies in the deeper meaning of freedom: with the power to question comes the responsibility to act. As Americans, we treasure freedom beyond life, and as Jews we celebrate the freedom we achieved so long ago, and found renewed when our ancestors came to the shores of this great country only a (relatively) short time ago. We should continue to follow Moses’ example and question the status quo, fight for causes that lessen human suffering, and expand freedom. It is a joyous enterprise even—or especially—when it is difficult.

Former CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd., Edgar M. Bronfman is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life. He is the author of, “The Bronfman Haggadah,” the founding chairman of Hillel’s International Board of Governors and the former president of the World Jewish Congress.

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