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Alex Trebek and Parshat Bo

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

You may have missed a sad, recent event in the news.  Overshadowed by current events, the death of Alex Trebek, long time host of “Jeopardy,” was barely noticed.  No, I’m not a serious fan of the show, but I am a fan of questioning, and Alex Trebek was the man of a thousand questions.  He was a cultural icon, who hosted this show for 36 years, each night reminding us of the deeply Jewish value of asking questions.

In the Jewish world, asking a question is a mitzvah.  We take nothing for granted, nothing at face value.  And this is a good thing.  It sharpens our minds, it keeps us humble and open to other points of view, and it is the fundamental way that we learn.  Pirke Avot reminds us that the person who is embarrassed doesn’t learn.  (Pirke Avot 2:6)  It is a sign of wisdom to ask when we don’t know, AND to question authority, to speak truth to power when necessary.

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, finds the Israelites in the final stage of the plagues.  Locusts, Darkness, and, ultimately, the tragic death of the first born.  Pharaoh was the consummate dictator, one who literally saw himself as a god.  It’s no wonder that his advisors, no less his people, did not question his enslavement of the Israelites, even as Moses and Aaron assumed leadership and the plagues began.  The risk felt too great.

It shouldn’t take suffering, violence, to motivate us to question authority, to speak up.  Yet, as the Torah demonstrates, it is human nature to bury our heads until the plagues multiply to the point that we can no longer ignore them.  Blood, frogs, lice- okay, they were bad, but then they passed and the Egyptians went on with their lives.

Finally, this week, Moses and Aaron ask the question, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself?”  (Exodus 10:3)  Finally, his advisors ask, “How long before you let them go?”  Finally, the people rise up, begging the Israelites to leave, recognizing that they are lost.

How might this story have been different, how much death and destruction might have been avoided, if the Egyptians had questioned Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites?  If his advisors had questioned his decision making?  If the Egyptian people had questioned his refusal to let the Israelites go?

As the parsha draws to a close, the story is enshrined in history through the institution of the Passover seder.  When our children question our observance, we are enjoined to tell them how Moses and Aaron took their lives in their hands to question authority, to speak truth to power.  And as we tell the story, perhaps we can reflect on how the 10 plagues and the ensuing suffering might have been avoided, if only more questions had been asked earlier in the narrative?

As we read this Torah portion in the light of current events, we can’t help but reflect on the downward spiral that comes from not speaking up, not asking questions.  We have a proud tradition of prophets who showed us the way to speak truth to power, beginning with Abraham and inspiring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom we celebrated this week.

Alex Trebek reminds us that the right answer is in asking the right question.  The cartoon strip, “For Better or For Worse,” on January 7th (2021) read as follows:  The student asks her teacher, “Miss Edwards- If exercising makes muscles get bigger, why doesn’t learning stuff make your head get bigger?  I mean, if you think of all the things you hafta know- a person’s head should be the size of a blimp!- but it isn’t.  Since everybody’s head looks sort of the same,” she concludes, “How can you tell how smart a person is?”  Miss Edwards wisely replies, “By the kinds of questions they ask.”

So, on this Shabbat of Parshat Bo, our challenge is- what kinds of questions are we asking?

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