The Four Questions: B'Haalot'cha 5775 by Cantor Lipp

Mon, 06/08/2015 - 10:28am -- lcanfield

I normally wouldn’t go to a film about Cinderella but the one recently made was directed by Kenneth Branagh and featured Cate Blanchett as the evil step-mother. I couldn’t resist. Also, our Music Festival guest of a couple of years ago, Zina Goldrich, just had her musical Ever After open at the Paper Mill Playhouse this past week on it’s way, we hope, to Broadway. There were two question that weaved themselves into my imagination and found their parallels in our Torah portion this week.

Question 1: Why doesn’t Cinderella’s slipper disappear like the carriage and horses at Midnight? My answer: it was a gift created out of nothing, not a transformed object, not a loan.

Question 2 comes from the Torah portion: Chovav is either Moses’ brother-in-law or father-in-law. Either way, Moses offers to have him join the Israelites on their way to the promised land which he has reason to believe will be a very short trip. Chovav refuses. Moses persists and says, You are our eyes. What does he mean, eyes?

The rabbis offer many possible answers: 

1. The most obvious and contextual answer is that Chovav knows the lay of the land and will be the ancient GPS for the Israelites. That doesn’t square, however, with God navigating as the fire/cloud, so...

2. Some say that with his eyes he witnessed God’s wonders; or

3. He will enlighten us to things we can’t see ourselves, like creating a judiciary to help Moses avoid burnout.

4. He will be as beloved to us as our eyes are in our heads.

But perhaps a more compelling question comes out of the Chovav narrative, #3: Why are we not given his answer to Moses’ second plea to join the Israelites on their way to Canaan? There is no answer in the text.

Most commentators assume he said yes as there is evidence of his descendants in later books of the Bible, one of whose wives, Yael, is responsible for killing our enemy Sisera in the time of Deborah.

But still that doesn’t answer question 3; why not state that he said ‘yes’?

And here’s where the woof and weave of the query tapestry comes to the fore with question 4 about Cinderella: Why does she leave the slipper and not make it easier for the prince to find her or even catch her? Wouldn’t that make more sense than going back to the drudgery of her step-mother and sisters?

In Stephen Sondheim’s second volume of lyrics Look, I Made a Hat, he speaks of James Lapine’s insight from Into the Woods that Cinderella intentionally left the slipper so the Prince would have to prove his love for her by putting in some effort in finding her.

Perhaps that’s the reason Torah’s narrator leaves out Chovav’s answer. We have to continue reading on, living our way through the story and history of our people, to appreciate the time of the Kenites and the entwined future of our peoples, we have to earn the answer, as it were.

Of what is Chovav's magic slipper made that is left for the Israelites? 

1. Hospitality -- remember when he saves the girls at the well after escaping from Egypt? They get home and tell their dad the story and he says, like a Jewish mother I might add, “So, where is he? You didn’t invite him for dinner?”

2. Insight: Yitro saves Moses’ sanity by suggesting a judiciary system rather than Moses having to adjudicate every dispute.

3. Caretaker: He takes care of Moses’ wife and sons while the Exodus is taking place. 

Those magic slippers never died and never would regardless of whether Chovav joined us physically to Canaan or not. 

All these gifts remain with us to this day; like the slipper, they were not given to us on loan. As long as we practice them, they will always fit.

Finally, we should allow ourselves a 5th question, as Passover allows for the possibility of a 5th cup of wine: What question has been left for us unanswered from the week that has passed, a question that can be answered through the gifts of Chovav to our people and the time for contemplation offered by Shabbat?

Shabbat Shalom.

David Lipp