The ideal drashah (sermon) combines science and art.
There is the scientific component, where the darshan embodies deep and authentic Jewish scholarship: breadth of knowledge, methodology, and faithfulness to tradition. Equally significant are the artistic elements of the drashah: eloquence, presentation, and a penetrating understanding of one’s intended audience.
It is no easy feat to compose good Pesach sermons. One must envision creative twists to well-trodden ancient texts, emerging with new understandings that educate, inspire, and delight.
As an accomplished scholar, and armed with a lifetime of experience as a community rabbi and then president and rosh hayeshiva of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm brings all his credentials as a master darshan to our Pesach Sedarim in his newly published commentary on the Haggadah, The Royal Table (OU Press).
Perhaps the core philosophy of this treasure-trove of insights can be identified in Dr. Lamm’s interpretation of the preface to the first half of the Hallel (Psalms 113-114), where we promise to sing a “new song” (shirah chadashah).
Dr. Lamm expresses amazement that this “new” song is none other than “the old, tried, worn Hallel.” His response: “Our people throughout the ages have instinctively understood that the rhythm of Torah combines the old and the new new insights are possible, insights that come with age and wisdom and experience . We must keep the old in sight; perceive in it the new through Insight; and as a result learn – to excite our souls and galvanize our spirits.”
That interplay between tradition and creativity receives magnificent expression throughout his elucidations of the classical Haggadah text.
Dr. Lamm stresses that ethical living is central to Judaism: “The highest form of creativity is neither intellectual nor artistic; it is ethical.” Elsewhere he even converts the korech sandwich into a lesson in balancing the different elements of our personalities – represented by the symbols of matzah and marror – to achieve perfection. Extremes must be avoided.
There is a talmudic debate about whether we should begin the negative aspect of the storytelling from our physical slavery or from our idolatrous origins. Instead of tackling that debate, Dr. Lamm explores a more basic question. If the Talmudic sages cannot even agree on so fundamental a point, how can we ever speak about “tradition”?
Dr. Lamm answers that uncertainty provokes machloket l’Shem Shamayim (debate for the sake of Heaven), and that uncertainty coupled with ongoing study makes life more interesting and energizing.
Religious existentialism emerges in the discussion of the plague of darkness. Darkness and solitude can indeed be a plague, and this is how the Egyptians perceived it. However, one with a healthier perspective finds blessing in moments of solitude. Loneliness can be painful, but also can become a creative opportunity to hear the voice of God and discover ourselves.
Dr. Lamm infuses ironic meaning into our practice of reclining. We recline as a relic from the Roman period, when nobles did so on couches while they dined. In an age of great technological advances such as chairs, however, of what value is this fossilized custom?
Dr. Lamm responds that our Seder is profoundly lacking because there is no Temple, and it was the ancient Romans who destroyed it. We shall not allow that destruction to undo us as a people.
Our response is to celebrate a living tradition from the era of the Temple with a Roman practice, while that once invincible Roman Empire is long gone.
Along with his perspicacious discussion of the Four Children, Dr. Lamm delights the reader with another section that outlines traits of the Four Parents. Education should not be focused exclusively on children and their respective differences. Rather, our continuity as a people depends heavily on the religious-educational attitudes of parents and how they speak to their children.
Dr. Joel Wolowelsky has provided an invaluable service in reading Dr. Lamm’s sermons, selecting and abridging them, and placing them alongside the text of the Haggadah as a running commentary. He also has succeeded in retaining Dr. Lamm’s authentic voice (as stated in the general introduction, Dr. Lamm reviewed the volume).
The Royal Table is a veritable gold mine for rabbis and educators. In addition to the wealth of insight, it is a consummate model as to what makes a great drashah. The Royal Table similarly is a welcome addition for all committed Jews seeking to enhance their Sedarim and ultimately their personal religious growth. The book is accessible to Jews of all backgrounds, as Dr. Lamm combines his hallmark eloquence and subtlety with clarity and a keen understanding of a diverse Jewish community.