The Need To Know

The Need To Know

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:34 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 10:1-13:16
Haftorah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Havdalah: 5:36 p.m.

Oh happy day! It’s an election year. With primaries just around the corner, we might wonder if Judaism has any advice for the candidates as they go about presenting the issues.

Actually, it does — in this week’s parashah, as it happens. The concern that we cultivate an educated public emerges from a studied comparison of how God communicates with Moses and how Moses, in turn, informs the people.

Beginning with the plagues, Nachmanides measures the relative mass of words used for each communication and concludes, “Torah speaks briefly of what God said to Moses, but elaborates on what Moses says to the people.” The closer to the top you are, the more you already know, and the less you must be told; being already in the inner circle, you get the gist of things rather quickly. People farther down the communication chain require more detailed explanation, since they are in no position to understand the issues without extended elaboration of them.

When God speaks to Moses, daya l’chakima bir’miza, a word to the wise is sufficient. Interpreting God’s will to the public takes Moses much longer.

The same pattern emerges in God’s command to celebrate Passover. There, too, God commands Moses only briefly, but counts on Moses to provide detail to the Israelites. The people are in the hierarchy of authority, the more information they have the need — and the right — to receive.

The full paradigm for communication arrives later in this sedra, with the model of “the four sons.” Once again, God explains Passover to Moses in the briefest of words, because (Nachmanides would have pointed out) Moses is already in God’s inner circle, so to speak. Not so the populace at large, who need elaboration. And they are closer to the original event than their ancestors will be — hence the need for even greater specificity as the generations go by, to the point where we get a detailed account of four different ways to pass along the story through the ages, a different mode of explanation for every single type of audience: the wise, the simple, the evil, and those who have no idea what even to ask about.

Judaism’s “need to know” principle is exactly the opposite of the military’s, where information trickles down with successive layers of people getting told less and less — purely on “a need to know basis.” The Jewish model says that the lower down you are the more you need to know, and the greater the obligation of those already in the loop to include you as a fully knowledgeable participant.

That is why the Talmud devotes page after page to dense argumentation around such questions as, m’na hanei milei, minayin, and m’na lan — different ways of asking how a given ruling arises; why, also, Maimonides searches for the reason behind each and every mitzvah, and why rabbinic literature never tires of writing commentary after commentary — even commentaries to the commentaries! Judaism thrives on full disclosure. God revels in a learned population; the more we know, the better.

We are increasingly enmeshed nowadays in information, but all our streaming, texting and tweeting to one another cannot guarantee the informed electorate that Jewish wisdom envisions. We have a need and a right to know, but as long as candidates for public office shroud their views in simplistic obfuscations, we shall have no enlightenment whatever.

“Say little and do much,” the Rabbis cautioned each other, knowing they were at the top of the information chain, like the cabinet in Washington or the local city councils. As for the rest of us, the citizens who depend on the cabinet and the councils, those who seek our votes had better level with us. For we are today’s “four sons and daughters,” the children who ask our elders “Why?” and have a rightful “need to know.”

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

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