Passover Dvar Torah
This essay is partially based on a lecture given by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at Yeshiva University on March 21, 2010.
“It is told that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar the son of Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon were gathered in Bnei Brak telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt all (Passover) night, until, near morning, their students came to tell them it was time for the recitation of the morning Shma.”
This famous passage, near the beginning of our Hagadah, is retold at every Passover Seder each year. But what does it mean, and why is it important that we recall it? Though it appears as a simple narrative, it conveys, in fact, an extra-ordinary message that we would do well to remember at our Passover Seder.
The key to the story is the order of the list of rabbis, and who is not there. We know that during Talmudic times each person sat reclining on an individual sofa at the Seder. And we also know from the Talmud (Brachos 46b), that the most important person sat in the middle, and the second most important sat beside him. In our narrative, Rabbi Elazar the son of Azariah is in the middle – even though he is the youngest of the group, and Rabbi Joshua is beside him. Missing from this august group is one of the greatest scholars of that age, Rabbi Gamliel.
From these details we can pinpoint the exact year of this story, and we can deduce its deeper significance. Shortly after the destruction of the Temple, when the Jewish People were being persecuted and exiled by Rome, there was great danger of Jews becoming splintered and unmoored without a homeland. There arose a fierce dispute between the two greatest rabbinical leaders of the time – Rabbi Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua. Though the dispute centered on details of Jewish religious practice, it quickly turned into a referendum on whether Jews needed to maintain uniformity of practice in order to survive the turbulent times (Rabbi Gamliel’s position) or whether debate and pluralism was a more healthy approach to take (Rabbi Joshua’s opinion).
Because there was such a deep division among the rabbis about which leader was right, and because the dispute threatened to cause lasting damage to the future integrity of the Jewish People, they decided that both of these rabbis should be removed from their positions, and a young scholar (Rabbi Elazar), about whom there was no controversy, would become the religious leader. One year later, when relative calm was restored, Rabbi Gamliel was reinstated.
Clearly then, this narrative occurred during that year, which is why Rabbi Elazar is in the middle position of honour. Since Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Gamliel were at odds, Rabbi Gamliel was absent, and Rabbi Joshua (as the senior scholar present) was given the second place of honour, beside Rabbi Elazar.
Think about the Jewish world on that night. Just a few years earlier, the Temple had been destroyed, say our rabbis, because of Sinat Chinom, needless hatred. Because of the arguments between rabbinic leaders, the Jewish People was again in danger of being permanently splintered into weak sects, unlikely to endure. If the rabbis could not avoid hostile arguing, the future of the Jewish People was in peril and tragedy awaited. That night, Rabbi Gamliel was absent, and the young Rabbi Elazar was in charge. That night one thing had to happen – no Machlokes, no controversy.
So Rabbi Elazar started telling stories about the Exodus from Egypt, one after another, and he drew in his older colleagues, sharing tales of marvellous miracles performed by God, and stories of the heroism of ancient Jews – in order to lose track of time. He and his colleagues understood the need to avoid any subject of controversy, at least that night. When they were notified by their students that dawn was approaching, they realized they had succeeded.
At a precarious moment, they came together and parted with mutual respect. Shortly after that, Rabbi Elazar willingly relinquished his role to the more deserving Rabbi Gamliel, and the Jewish People had a model of restraint for the sake of peace that should guide us even today.
There is a time for lively debate and healthy diversity of opinion. And there is a time for restraint for the sake of peace. It takes a wise person to know which is called for. May God grant you and me that wisdom, and may our Passover Seders be filled with loving family and friends, enthralling stories, delicious food, and peace.
Rabbi Michael Whitman