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Special Haggadah Edition

The Drasha of Ben Zoma: A halachic and conceptual revolution

We are told by Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in the hagaddah: ‘I am like a seventy year old man and, yet I did not merit that the Exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night until Ben Zoma explained (darsha) the verse.’

Like most sections of the hagaddah the origin of this story is Tannaitic. The source of the drasha (exposition) is a mishnah in Massechet Brachot:

The Exodus from Egypt is mentioned at night.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said:  “I am like a seventy year old man and yet I did not merit that the Exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night until Ben Zoma explained (darsha) the verse: ‘In order that you remember the day you left the Land of Egypt all the days of your life.’ ‘The days of your life’ [would mean only] the days, [the addition of the word] ‘all the days of your life’ [indicates that it includes] the nights. And Chachamim (the Sages) say that: ‘‘The days of your life’ [would mean only] this world, ‘all the days of your life’ [is written] to include the Days of Mashiach. (Mishnah Brachot 1, 5)

The original mishnah is not referring to the reading of the hagaddah on seder night, rather the matter up for discussion is whether or not the third paragraph of “vayomer” should be said at night, in kriyat shema of maariv. The third paragraph of the shema deals with the mitzvah of tzitzit. The wording of the text makes it clear that an integral part of the mitzvah is related to sight: “You will see it and remember all the commandments of God…” (Bamidbar 17) Therefore, the mitzvah of tzitzit only applies during the light of day and not at night when it is too dark to see. Consequently, one would think that the paragraph concerning the mitzvah of tzitzit should only be said during kriyat shema in the morning when the mitzvah applies, and not at night. And yet, it seems from the mishnah in Brachot that Ben Zoma’s drasha, based on a section of Devarim that deals with Pesach, fundamentally changed the composition of the nightly kriyat shema.

The Tosefta in Brachot adds another layer of dialogue into the dispute between Ben Zoma and the Chachamim. When the Chachamim suggest that the word “kol” does not includes the night but rather the Days of Mashiach, Ben Zoma responds that it does not make sense to say that the exodus from Egypt will still be mentioned at that time. It seems that Ben Zoma believes that the future redemption will be so great that it will completely overshadow the redemption from Egypt, leaving us with no reason to mention the first redemption. The Chachamim, on the other hand, do not believe that the redemption from Egypt will be completely erased from our historical memory. Rather, it will remain there in the background as an integral component of who we are, an essential step in our journey to the ultimate redemption.

They said to him: the redemption from Egypt will not be uprooted from its place, rather the redemption from Egypt will be (mentioned) in addition to the (redemption from the) kingdoms. (The redemption from the) kingdoms will be of principal importance and the redemption from Egypt will be secondary. Similarly it says, “Your name will no longer be called Yaakov, but rather Yisrael…” (Tosefta Brachot, 1, 10)

This Tosefta compares the national redemption of Bnei Yisrael to the personal redemption of Yisrael himself. Yaakov was given the new name of Yisrael, but that did not mean that the name Yaakov was completely erased from the annals of history. It’s interesting that the Chachamim use a verse that seems to indicate the opposite of their claim, that Yaakov would no longer be known by that name. Perhaps the Chachamim were trying to point out that while he would cease to be called Yaakov, the name would still exist and would still be mentioned.

From the dialogue in the Tosefta it seems that Ben Zoma rejects the drasha of the Chachamim because it does not make sense; yet we do not find a similar discussion of Ben Zoma’s opinion. If it weren’t for Rabbi Elazar’s excited statement (“I did not merit”) we probably would never have noticed that there was anything novel about his position. Yet in the wake of Rabbi Eliezer ben Azarya it seems that we should revisit Ben Zoma’s approach.

Ben Zoma reads the parsha of tzitzit backwards, starting with the conclusion. He emphasizes the reason that is brought in the paragraph: “For I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The source of the mitzvah is the focus, and not the act of fulfillment- wearing the tzitzit. While Chachamim connected memory to our sense of sight, Ben Zoma believes that we can use speech, imagination, and thought to create memory. Ben Zoma takes us from the realm of our physical senses, sight and touch, to a virtual reality. He takes us from day to night, which is the source of the day- the beginning.

It would be easy to dismiss the enormity of the conceptual revolution Ben Zoma’s drasha wrought were it not for the fact that it took so long for this novel approach to spread. The source in the Talmud Yerushalmi makes it clear that Ben Zoma’s opinion was not the final and exclusive accepted halachic practice until the times of the Amoraim, several generations after his death and after the compilation of the mishnah.(T.Y. 1, 10; see also Mishnah Brachot 2, 2)

Up until this point we have focused on the halachic implications of Ben Zoma’s revolutionary idea- when we recite which parts of kriyat shema- but over the generations this drasha has been used to relay profound ideological concepts as well. Chassidic masters have taken this idea in a number of different directions, but the common denominator remains the same- that even in times of grave darkness it is possible to use our mind to reach a state of redemption from Egypt. This idea has been used to confront crises of faith both in times of national exile and suffering, and also in times of personal distress.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that Ben Zoma’s explanation is novel precisely because it is a drasha: “Until Ben Zoma darash (expounded), for drasha breaks the klipot (shell).” The exegetical tool of drash allows one to circumvent the basic meaning of the text; instead of proving an idea logically, step by step, a drasha expands the possible explanations well beyond the strict, formal rules of language.  Drash is born when we approach the text in a new way, look at it from a different point of view. Similarly, sometimes a difficult situation can be easier to deal with if we take a step back and try to see the humor or irony in it. (Baal Shem Tov, Parshat Noach)

Later, the Baal Shem Tov relates that the redemption from Egypt was a revelation of the aspect of “nukba,” meaning that the people did not technically see God, rather they felt that they perceived God on an intuitive level. The Baal Shem Tov explains that only in the time of the future redemption will God be revealed on the level of “your eyes will see your Master.” And so we can learn from the redemption from Egypt that we do not need physical sight to identify God, it is enough to look and listen inside of ourselves. (Baal Shem Tov, Parshat Shmot)

Rav Zeev Wolf of Zhitomir (a student of the Maggid of Mezeritch) explains in his book Ohr HaMeir that Ben Zoma’s is trying to teach us not to separate between the different stages of our lives. Just as we do not distinguish between day and night, so to we should not distinguish between the future redemption and the present redemption.

We must educate ourselves to understand that it is all one unceasing matter; all this is incumbent on a person all the days of his life in this world. And the Chachamim say: “’The days of your life’- is this world; ‘all the days of your life,’ [was said] to include the Days of the Mashiach.” One who sees will see and understand that the Chachamim were explaining Ben Zoma, they are saying the same thing to teach wisdom. “The days of your life in this world” is the Torah of man which he should speak of, purify, and clarify all the days of his life in order to connect the two redemptions, [to connect] the first redemption so that he can merit to be part of the final redemption. And this is “all the days of your life- to include the Days of Mashiach.” For one who separates between two things that are connected will not merit to be a part of the final redemption, the days of our Mashiach.

It seems that the importance of the drashot of the Chachamim and Ben Zoma comes from the story that they tell when they are put together. The narrative they relate has the power to guide us through times of darkness, of personal and national struggles. One who is wise can find the connection between day and night, between redemption and exile; this person can feel the presence of God through the surrounding darkness, even while others find it difficult to see.

Even so, we cannot ignore the fundamental difference between the two approaches.

The Chachamim advise us to keep in mind that the stage we are in now is preliminary, and therefore we must wait for the final redemption. At this point we are in the middle of a complex, but continuous, process, and there are many things that will only become clear to us at the end.

Ben Zoma sees things a bit differently. Instead of focusing on continuity and the big picture he suggests that we look inside ourselves, go back to the source. The source of the day is the night. This is not only a chronological truth; it is an important stage of development. Night is the time when the soul returns to its source to refresh itself and draw strength. This is the place, deep inside, hidden from view, where certainty exists. After peeling away the layers, the klipot, that we have accumulated throughout our years on this earth we can find the seed of our true selves, our essence, and draw from that place to figure out the next move. If we are able to return to that place deep inside we will have no trouble identifying the next step on our path; we will clearly understand the processes at work up until this point in our lives.

Instead of waiting for the end as Chachamim suggest, Ben Zoma tells us we should look at the process from the beginning. With this knowledge and certainty we can find ourselves and turn in the right direction in anticipation to face the light that will shine down upon us in the future redemption. Instead of looking outside for answers, or waiting for the future, we turn inside and draw truth from within. But, as the Baal Shem Tov points out, in order to do so we need to expand our horizons, to unlock the power of drasha and of our imaginations. And on this night, the seder night, a night that our sages tell us is more day that night, we are each invited to draw from our own personal springs of salvation in order to reach a state of mind that can see the light of day in the dark of night.

I leave you with a blessing that soon will come a day that is neither day nor night- Chag Sameach!

בברכת קרב יום אשר הוא לא יום ולא לילה, חג שמח!


Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780