By Rabbi Guy Tal
(AJNews) – Whenever any holiday arrives, I feel overwhelmed with many ideas and messages about the values and the concepts that this Holiday can teach us. Those ideas and “divrei torah” are the fruits of centuries of contemplating, pondering and drawing ideas made by the most intelligent people of our nation. Every year they study again about the holyday, investigating the ancient holy sources and always come with some new ideas from the infinite wisdom of the Torah.
However, sometimes I feel a bit lost in that sea of ideas, values, and explanations, asking myself, so, what is the main idea? What is the center of the holiday around which all the other lessons are located? It is not easy to find that main idea or value, and there might even be disagreements about it, like in many other cases in the rich Jewish world of thought.
In the case of Pesach, or, at least, its (two) first nights – the “seder” – many may agree that the main purpose is education – the special mitsva of telling the story of “yetziat mitsraim” – Exodos – to our children. We learn that mitzva from the verse that recite: “vehigadta lebincha” – you shall tell it to your son (Ex. 13, 8). It is a special mitzva, distinct from that of teaching Torah generally and is focused on that night that should be used to transmit our millenarian legacy to the next generation.
The field of education is complicated, profound, and challenging for everyone. We can never know if we are doing or saying the right things to our children or if we take the right approach with them. The Halachot and customs of the Passover Seder can give us some general guidance about this complex issue. I would like to mention three ideas that I believe can be useful to everyone in that area.
The seder teaches us that education is not only verbal, rational, or informative, but a real live experience. In Pesach we not only tell the story but try to live those glorious moments of the Exodos again with our real actions. We eat the same food as our ancestors, taste the bitterness of the maror, sit in a certain way, in order to feel free etc. The key sentence is the following: In each and every generation a person is obligated to see himself (other version: show himself) as if he went out of Egypt.
You should see yourself – imagine it, feel it live it as it is happening to you and you are now taking your family, putting some matza in your bag, and going out happily from this horrible place – Egypt. If you only read that many years ago some people did it – you have not completed your obligation. These feelings of happiness, freedom and gratitude should pass to our children through that special experience. The message and the values we want to plant in our children’s lives do not pass only through their minds but through their whole being.
I remember a nice custom that my grandmother Savta Masuda z”l did when I was child. In the middle of the seder the kids went out from the dining room, dressed up like the ancient Jews and then came back. All the participants of the seder made the following conversation with us:
Who are you? We are Bnei Israel?
Where do you come from? We come from Egypt, from the house of slavery.
Where are you going to? We are going to Eretz Israel.
It was such a nice episode and another vivid way to live the experience of the seder and its educational message.
We begin the story of Exodus in the seder with questions – Ma Nishtana Halayla Haze. Those questions should be asked by the kids.
There are instructions written in the Haggadah for some actions we should do during the seder and sometimes people don’t really know why we do those things and just do it because it is written, but its real original purpose is to awaken the curiosity of children and make them ask the question: why do we do all these strange things and why is that night so different from other nights? For example, sometimes we uncover the matzot and then we recover it. It is also the reason that we remove the plate – the “Keara” – from the table before the meal and then bring it back. Part of the actions in the seder itself are done for the same reason. We do “netilat yadayim without a beracha and eat the karpas (apio) with salty water or vinegar because we want the children to notice that something is different tonight.
The motivation to ask, the curiosity and awareness of what is happening around me is the base of learning. The question is, of course, the first step towards the answer. We must encourage our children to open their eyes and ask. We should also make them feel safe when doing it, creating a supporting and healthy environment to doubts and exploring. The questions show that the actual situation is not enough for me and I am looking to elevate myself to the next level of knowledge and understanding. That is why the biggest achievement of the seder should be hearing my child asking curiously why this night is so different from any other night, since hearing that means that he is ready to listen and to be open to the answers we might give him.
We read in the Haggadah: The Torah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.
These words are based on the fact that the mitzva of telling the sons the story of the Exodos is written four times in the Torah. We can learn from that that different kinds of children require different kinds of answers. The Mishna says: According to the son’s level his father teaches him.
We cannot answer the “chacham” as we do with the “rasha.” The Haggadah mentions only four sons, but the real number is the number of children you have sitting around the table, because each one of them is a unique world and needs his own treatment.
Another important message is that we can never give up on the “rasha.” He may ask in a provocative way. Maybe he will set himself apart from the community or the family (“he disassociated himself from the congregation“) Sometimes we may answer him in a harsh way. But an answer always must be given. To ignore him, reject him or just being indifferent to him would be the biggest mistake!
Rav Savatu emphasizes that it is important to give the right attitude and treatment to the wise son as well. Many times, we have a nice clever boy thanks G-od. Everything is simply fine with him. He learns well, he does not have any social or emotional difficulties, and he does not bother us too much with his problems. It looks like we do not need to “spend energy” on him. It is another big mistake. The “chacham” needs our attention and the specific treatment he requires not less than the “rasha” or any other child.
There are many other lessons that we can learn from this extraordinary evening with all its customs and halachot (laws). Most of these lessons are connected to the purpose of educating the next generation. These customs and halachot can provide helpful advice how to face that challenge not only in the evening of the seder but during the whole year.
Mo’adim Lesimcha and Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Guy Tal is the spiritual leader of Beth Israel Congregation, Edmonton’s Modern Orthodox Jewish congregation.