Lazer Gurkow

I wish I were a simpleton

Are you a simpleton? The Haggadah makes the simpleton sound, well, simple. The simpleton asks, “What is this?” What is the seder? Why do we eat matzah and bitter herbs? Why do we drink four cups of wine? Tell him that G-d extracted us from Egypt, from the house of bondage, with a strong arm.

He is a simpleton, so he believes what he is told. You tell him you are eating all this food because G-d once liberated your ancestors from Egypt, so he believes you. But really, what kind of answer is this? Why do we celebrate what happened so many years ago? And why is G-d’s strong arm relevant here?

I do enough

There is a profound timeless message here that is as relevant today as it was on the day the Haggadah was written. The simpleton is not asking a simple question. He is asking a question that bothers extraordinary people. You see, the simpleton is not so simple. He is a deep thinker who probes the depth of his soul and is troubled by a problem that most people never even consider.

Most people are self-satisfied with their moral and spiritual state. They feel that they give plenty to charity and deserve accolades for it. They attend services often enough, certainly more than many other people they know. They are honest, moral, empathetic, and upstanding; they do everything decent people do. They volunteer, give to their community, and are devoted to their family. What more can G-d want from solid, hardworking people like them?

The Talmud (Sotah 22b) tells us that this attitude can erode the world. People who walk around making sure that everyone knows just how much they do and how good they are, erode their world. They feel they are perfect as they are and have no incentive for growth. They lie to themselves and the world. Their only interest is proving that they are special.

What is this?

These self-satisfied people are sophisticated. They do much, and they think highly of themselves. Along comes the simpleton and asks a simple question that most people never think of. As much as I do, is that enough compared to how much I owe G-d? G-d provides me with life, children, a wife, family, friends, a home, an income, a reputation, respectability, and resources. What do I give in return? Whatever it is, is it enough?

What is this? What is this business of feeling self-satisfied with how much I have done? What do my efforts amount to compared to what G-d does for me?

Moreover, G-d is the king of all kings. He preceded creation and will be here long after creation. He is unchanging, omnipotent, infinite, splendorous, magnificent, enchanting, and every adjective I can imagine. Even if I gave Him everything I have, it would not scratch the surface of what He deserves. He ought to be worshipped, honored, feared, loved, and extolled forever and ever.

When I look at what I do for G-d, the question is, what is this? What do my efforts amount to? Can anything I do ever impress G-d?

This is a profound question asked by someone who sets aside his ego and self-serving desires. He is straightforward and calls it as it is. He speaks the truth and doesn’t care who is listening. He doesn’t mind if you are offended by his suggestion that you don’t do enough. He is not even thinking about you or talking to you. He is talking to and about himself. If you don’t like it, don’t listen. But his words are valid.

When all is said and done, what value do we bring to G-d? Can we ever do as much for G-d as He does for us? Can we even scratch the surface of what He deserves? We walk around feeling smug and self-satisfied. What is this smugness? What justifies it?

The sad truth

The simpleton speaks the truth, but it is a sad truth. It can be demoralizing to recognize the paucity of our efforts. Knowing that nothing we do is large enough to impress G-d or to make a difference to G-d can sap our will. If nothing we do is good enough for G-d, we can lose motivation.

We, therefore, respond to the simpleton’s probing question with a reminder that G-d took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. G-d doesn’t judge us on His merits; he judges us on our merits. When our ancestors were in Egypt, they did not deserve to be liberated. After two centuries in Egypt, they had learned from their neighbors. Many Jews were pagan idol worshippers. Even the angels asked G-d why He delivered the Jews and smote the Egyptians.

G-d did not explain Himself to the angels. He simply liberated the Jews. Why? Because G-d is not didactic with us. He is generous and loving, like a parent to a child. He doesn’t judge us by how much we owe Him. He judges us by how difficult it is for us to give what we do. When we go to the synagogue, G-d doesn’t thunder down screaming why we didn’t come yesterday. He smiles down at us and embraces us with love.

This is why we mention that G-d took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. He used His strength to overcome the scales of justice and treated us as a loving parent rather than a stern judge. He judged us by the challenges that we faced and the efforts we made to overcome them. If our ancestors preserved their Jewish names, language, and dress, G-d was ecstatic. Not because that is all our ancestors were meant to do. But because of how hard our ancestors had to work to achieve that.

The same is true in our times. Though we can’t scratch the surface or make a dent in the pile of debt we owe G-d, He doesn’t treat us that way. He rejoices with every effort we make on His behalf. Therefore, it should incentivize us to keep improving rather than asking why we should bother if we can’t make a dent. Every little bit, every little effort, makes G-d giddy with happiness because He loves us.

Ask anyway

Of course, the simpleton is right to ask the question. G-d’s perspective is good for G-d but should never be good for us. We should never be satisfied with what we have accomplished in the past. We should never say, look at how much I am already doing. We must always strive to be and do better.

G-d loves everything we do, so this question should not disincentivize us. On the contrary, we must never stop striving to be better. We should never be smug and self-satisfied.

We should always be like the simpleton, which is why I love the simpleton.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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