Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet answers readers’ questions in his weekly column, Ask the Rabbi.
A Jewish spark burning bright
My neighbour is not religious in the slightest but, come Pesach, he is beside himself cleaning the house and covering everything. He eats no bread and keeps the festival as I do. Isn’t this hypocrisy? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to keep Passover along with Shabbat and kashrut? Why do some people choose one over another?
There was a census taken at UCLA, which determined that two percent of non-practising Christians would still observe some elements of their particular holidays. An overwhelming 84 percent of non-observant Jewish students would still go to synagogue on Yom Kippur.
If you go over to that Jew in the pew and ask, “Do you observe?”, his likely response will be: “You have got to be kidding. You should have seen what I had for breakfast yesterday.” If you persist and ask him, “Do you believe in God?,” he will invariably answer you: “Please don’t confuse me; take it up with my rabbi.” But if you then ask him: “So why you here?” he will most likely respond with: “Because God wants me to be here, that’s why.” Is that hypocrisy? Certainly not.
It can be best described as the “insanity of Judaism”. In other words, subjective opinions to an objective truth. A Jew is a Jew, even if he doesn’t observe and God is God even if I don’t believe.
Pesach defines the birth of our nation and Yom Kippur defines the essence of a Jew. Sure, many will be inclined to tell you that “it’s tradition,” which frankly makes no sense. Why starve yourself for 25 hours on Yom Kippur and deny yourself so much culinary delight, not to mention scrub away for weeks before Pesach, just because that’s what my grandfather used to do in the shtetl?
The true reason is because at the core, whether we are aware of it or not, that Jewish spark is burning bright and whether consciously or otherwise, we are motivated by some inexplicable energy to do the right thing, which connects us to fellow souls in our past, present and future. In short, Pesach just proves that you can run but you can’t hide.
One is god of the universe
“Who knows one, I know one.” Who is the author of the song and is it there simply because it is entertaining for children? After all, we make no mention of Pesach within the song.
No one knows the author of this song, but it has been around for a very long time. The melody contains a deep and inspiring truth. In the beginning of the 20th century, many psychologists speculated that the game ‘word association’ can reveal something of a person’s subconscious mind, as it shows what things they tend to typically associate together. So if I said ‘job’ and you respond saying ‘work,’ you’re going to be presumed ambitious. If I said ‘job’ and you reply with ‘gun,’ you’re probably going to have a rather bad day.
You might say the song Who Knows One offers the Jewish approach to ‘number association’ and, more importantly, conveys the true nature of a Jewish soul. When a man sees the number two, he might think of the number of cars he owns. When a woman sees 25 she might think of the pairs of shoes she has.
Maybe the number eight reminds you of the day you were born. The number 30 might remind about payday. Sit a Jewish child down in a Jewish studies class and ask them: “What does one remind you of?” They will instinctively respond: “One God.” Ask them what two reminds them of? That will trigger in their psyche the memory of the two tablets. And so forth.
Why do we sing this on seder night? Maybe because while it is something the Jew might otherwise want to keep hidden, after four cups of wine he is a little less inhibited and happy to flaunt his Jewish identity.
Throughout the year, the Jew might choose to be circumspect about revealing his spiritual self, but after those four cups of wine, he cannot hold back – one God, two tablets, three fathers, four mothers, five books of Moses…
There is, however, another layer to the message of this song. The Haggadah declares: “In every generation they stand up against us to cut us down…” Sadly and tragically, we observed this once again several times in the past many months, whether in Israel or Paris.
The greatest question is how is it possible that, after 3,300 years of such incidents, the Jewish nation still thrives? The answer to this question lies in that song. In it, we go through the 13 main factors that allowed us to survive and thrive, despite all of our struggles.
Somewhere, deep down, there is the awareness and sense of our commitment to the two tablets that Moses got, the Patriarchs, the Matriarchs, the Torah, the Mishna, the Shabbat, and so forth. We have also survived because of our unwavering loyalty to the Ten Commandments, and the power to dream, like Joseph, about a greater future. But, above all else, even when some might be otherwise oblivious to much of it, everyone knows, deep in their souls, that “One is God of the Heavens and the Earth”.
It’s not just a song. It’s the secret of our survival. It is what will ensure that next year is in Jerusalem.