Asking the Questions, Developing the Answers

Sunday, April 20, 2008 - 10:31 am

Asking the Questions, Developing the Answers

Pesach (Passover) is upon us. In a recent entry by Rachel Barenblat (a rabbinical student who writes the Velveteen Rabbi blog), she recounts a seder in which three questions were asked and were answered with prescribed responses. A Sephardic custom (according to Barenblat, Iraqi or Afghani in origin), the seder opens with a person circling the table of participants asking:

Who are you? The answer: “I am Yisrael.”

Where are you coming from? The answer: ”I am coming from Mitzrayim.”
Where are you going? The answer: “I am going to Yerushalayim.”

As Barenblat sees it, these questions call us to think more deeply, to examine the nature of our true selves, and open ourselves up to the possibility of emergence from narrow, confined places and look ahead to a more generous future.
My two sons attend an early childcare facility run by a Jewish community center. Although our family’s not Jewish, we, by default, loosely observe shabbat on Friday and various holidays simply through scheduling and songs and rituals celebrated at school (I’ll be taking a vacation day tomorrow to be with my boys because the daycare center is closed).
So, when I read these questions, I was shaken to the core, especially after a tumultuous, stress-filled week of work and family hiccups. They cause me to pause and ask myself about how I define myself and not the outside world. I look to the being who exists in that thin crevasse between closed eyelids and the breaking rays of dawn, and the vestige that reflects in the cab of his truck on the freeway home.
It’s in this interstitial space that I remember Avivah Zornberg’s retelling and interpretation of a story from a fifth-century Midrash:

You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, ‘What did the daughters of Israel do?’ They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts. 

Dr. Zornberg: She says to him, ‘I’m more beautiful than you,’ and he answers her, ‘No, I’m more beautiful than you.’ So there is some kind of dare going on here. There’s some kind of game. As I understand it, it’s a game in which she is challenging him to see his own beauty. If there’s anything left in him at all of any kind of assertiveness, then how could he not somewhere swing back at her when she has said that to him? And the result is — and the Midrash is very unequivocal — the result is that they accustom themselves to desire, an extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire. 

Ms. Tippett: Right. 

Dr. Zornberg: And I think there’s a sense here that what she’s got going here makes it possible for each couple to feel that they are capable of giving birth to all the many various possibilities. 

Ms. Tippett: And the possibility of freedom. 

Dr. Zornberg: Of freedom, of infiniteness, of unpredictability, which such multiple births suggests, and that it’s all done with mirrors, the Midrash says, mischievously, it seems to me. And I have a whole theory about these mirrors. It seems to me that, when one looks in a mirror, one is basically always seeing a somewhat changed version of oneself, a distorted version of oneself. So it means that the mirror represents fantasy. But from the point of view of the Midrash and from the point of view of God, who supports the women’s activities, it takes an act of this kind, a performative act of whimsy and imagination, not looking at things quite straight, in order to open things up.

From this story, I’ve created my own meaning and retelling of the idea to apply to my circumstances. I won’t go into it here, but the mirror is held up to me every day — and in it I’m creating my own midrashic story.

Share Post


is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

Share Your Reflection