The Challenge of Success – Bo 5781

D'var Torah | Exodus

Inevitably, children will ask about the purpose of observing the Passover ritual long after the original events when the people Israel are securely ensconced in the Land of Israel. Anticipating this circumstance, the Torah advises parents: “When your children ask you: ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, it is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptian but saved our houses” (Exodus 12:27). The advice is reiterated one chapter later. “And when in time to come, your son asks you, saying ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage'” (Exodus 13:14). There is a grammatical difference between the two verses, albeit slight. In Exodus 12:27 the parents speak in the plural while in Exodus 13:14 the parents speak in the singular.


The difference was not lost on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of the neo-Orthodox movement in Germany and one of the most influential rabbis of the nineteenth century. For Hirsch, the difference was more than a grammatical anomaly which itself is a problem of no small impact since it calls into question the perfection of a text held to be divine and thus beyond error. For Hirsch, the difference has to do with how success can warp human character.


His argument runs as follows. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt they had only hopes and prayers to sustain them. Their attachment to God was profound and universal. Each and every parent felt the rituals of Passover to symbolize that attachment and could not imagine it differently in the future. Hence, parents speak collectively to the children and the plural verb reflects that idea. When the Israelites reach their destination and grow successful as farmers in the Land of Israel, they suffer from their success. Successful people no longer see God as necessary. Hirsch describes them as “ossified in materialism.” While some parents can still speak to their children about spiritual matters, most parents cannot. Exodus 13:14 expresses that change by the use of the singular verb.


Rather than judging Hirsch’s comment as descriptive, that is to say, it must always be the case that with success comes a distancing for God, we ought to judge it as a warning. While the blessing of success is welcome, we should never let it detract from maintaining a deep and enduring connection with God.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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