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Need to know

Bo | Exodus 10:1-13:16

Oh happy day! It’s an election year, and 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 parsha, 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, Nahmanides measures the relative mass of words used for each communication and concludes, “Torah speaks briefly of what God says 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. People farther down the communication chain require more detailed explanation, since they are in no position to understand the issues without extended elaboration. 

When God speaks to Moses, v’dai l’hahima b’remiza, “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 briefly, but counts on Moses to provide detail to the Israelites. 

The full paradigm for communication arrives later in this parsha, with the model of “the four sons.” Once again, God explains Passover to Moses briefly because (Nahmanides would have pointed out) Moses is already in God’s inner circle. Not so the populace at large, who need elaboration. And they are closer to the original event than their descendants 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 modes of explanation for every type of audience: the wise, the simple, the evil, and those who have no idea what to ask about. 

The lower down you are, the more you need to know and the greater the obligation of those in the loop to include you as a fully knowledgeable participant.

That is why the Talmud devotes page after page to dense argument around different ways of asking how a given ruling arises; why, also, Maimonides searches for the reason behind each and every mitzva; 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. 

We are increasingly enmeshed nowadays in information, but all of our own streaming, texting, and tweeting 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 members in Washington and councils of our local townships. 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.”

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