The Child We Think We Should Be, and the Child We Ought to Be: A Reflection for the Seder

The Seder is the story of a journey, and the Haggadah is the guidebook. Through engaging with symbolic foods and meaningful text, we retell the story of the Exodus.

There are fourteen parts to the Seder, each one its own step in the journey. The section “Maggid” (“telling”) is dedicated to telling the story in dramatic fashion, and part of the drama is the parable of the four children.

The Torah tells us four times that we are to tell the story of the Exodus to our children. Since there can be no redundancies in Torah according to the ancient rabbis, they imagine that each command to tell the story to our children is an answer to a child with a different temperament. This midrash (commentary) is recorded in the Haggadah. Here is the traditional passage in its entirety:

four children
The Four Children. Drawing and photo by me.

The Torah speaks of four children–one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.

The wise one (chacham)–what does he say?  “What are the testimonies, and the statutes and the laws that Adonai our God commanded you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20).  So you tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may not eat anything whatsoever after the Pesach sacrifice.

The wicked one (rasha)–what does he say?  “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26).  “To you”, and not to him.  And since he excluded himself from the people at large, he denies the foundation of our faith.  So you blunt his teeth and tell him, “It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).  “For me”, and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The simple son (tam)–what does he say?  “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14).  “Tell him, ‘with a strong hand God took us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery'” (ibid.).

As for the one who does not know how to ask (she’ano yodea lishol), you must begin for him, as it is written “and you shall tell your child in that day, saying:  It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

Judging by the answers to the children, the wicked child and the one who does not know how to ask are one in the same. They receive the same answer because they both take themselves out of the story, albeit in different ways—the wicked consciously and the non-asker by indifference. On the other hand, the wise and the simple child put themselves into the heart of the story, albeit in different ways.

When we were young, perhaps we all imagined ourselves to be—or hoped ourselves to be—the wise child. Or even now as adults who admire wisdom and intelligence we tend to favor the first child. We all want to be the chacham.

But to be the chacham is not always to be prized.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his work Ma’or Vashemesh, reflects on the story in Genesis of the serpent in the Garden tempting humanity with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The knowledge gained, he writes, is the wisdom of knowing good and bad, yet when one knows good from bad, one tends to pass judgment on his or her fellow human being:

We must not hold ourselves as so smart that we really know our fellow, and her unique path…And, surely when we perceive another’s deficiencies we do so out of haughtiness; we hold ourselves to be “something.” But, if we were truly humble, knowing our own deficiencies and twisted ways, we would consider our fellow as better than we. We would not look for their deficiencies at all. It is only because we see ourselves as “great” that another’s ways and words are not fit in our eyes. Jacob, our Father, had this quality: he was a “simple man (ish tam)”, who did not hold himself to be so smart (chacham) that he should assess another’s ways. (Ma’or Vashemesh, Bereshit. Trans. by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality)

The chacham is arrogant, who judges others. The tam is humble, who does not.

Reflecting this back onto the Haggadah: the wise child’s question is focused solely on the correct practice of Passover, on all of the intricacies, the rules, the observances. He knows what is good or bad, what is right or wrong, and he will judge if it is not done right. And so he is answered only with the laws. He is unable to see beyond the what of Passover to the why of Passover. And if he doesn’t understand the why, then he is unable to understand redemption.

The simple child asks only, “what is this?” By asking the open-ended question, he does not invite or pass judgment. He simply opens himself to the “all of it,” the meaning of Passover, the possibility of redemption and the journey of transformation. Indeed, this is the answer to his query–God took us out of Egypt. There is no presumption, no leading question. Only the willingness to inquire and the humility to hear the answer.

Wisdom, the Ma’or Vashemesh teaches, is not always assigned but assumed. And when we assume our own wisdom, we fail to see beyond ourselves and open ourselves up to the wisdom that comes from others. The wise child of the Haggadah presumes to know all there is to know about Passover and therefore fails to grasp the true meaning of the festival.

However: Future redemption will come not from the wise who have the audacity to believe they know all the answers, but from the simple who have the humility to know that they do not.

MLK’s Dayenu Moment

This week I wrote my monthly entry in the Rabbis Without Borders blog, reflecting on the confluence with the beginning of 348px-Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lectern (1)Passover and the Seders with the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. For my weekly message, I share what I wrote, and fitting as we move out of Passover this week.

The seventh day of Passover, beginning tonight, is a full holiday, and it is the day associated with the crossing of the Red Sea. That is the final act of redemption. With the crossing of the sea and it closing upon the Egyptians who were in pursuit, the Israelites were assured of their freedom. But just as one journey ends, another begins.

So as we move out of Passover, I invite you to reflect on what you are taking with you. What steps of liberation did you take this year, and what steps do you still need to take? Were you able to identify a personal or societal Egypt (in Hebrew Mitzrayim, “the narrow places”)? And as you celebrate and give thanks for how far you have come, were you able to marshal the strength to cover the ground that is in front of you?

I hope you have had a sweet Passover. And I wish you many blessings in your coming journey.

Chag sameach!

04-08-2015 09:00:03 AM

This past weekend, as I gathered for Passover seders, first with my family and friends, and then with my congregation, I could not help but notice that these sacred occasions coincided with the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, […]…»

Passover: Eat Differently, Clean House, Give Birth, Become an Ally

The holiday of Passover is upon us, beginning tomorrow night. The week-long festival marks the onset of spring and the story of the Exodus, the Torah story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery. The story is an important theological anchor for Judaism: the journey from redemption to freedom is a paradigm we refer to often, and is an underpinning of our understanding of personal spiritual growth and social justice (“do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,” the Torah tells us often.)

We begin Passover with the Seder, the ceremonial meal held on the first and second nights. During the Seder, when we retell the story and eat symbolic foods, we have the recurrence the “fours.” We drink four cups of wine, the younger children recite the four questions to prompt the telling of the story, we tell the story of the four children to relate the Exodus in different ways.


So as we begin Passover, here are another group of four—the four observances. The means of observing Passover can be involved and intricate, and there is much on which to reflect. Here are four ways you can make your Passover a meaningful one.

Eat Differently: Each Passover we revisit the ceremonial foods which form the centerpiece of the ritual. (Literally too since we put them on a special Seder plate). We may engage with the story differently each year, but the foods remain the same. Bitter herbs, salt water, parsley, boiled egg, charoset and matzo all appear year after year to provide us with a visceral understanding of the events and their meaning. And beyond the seder, it is the custom to put aside our leavened products—bread, pasta, cakes, etc.—and eat only matzo and its unleavened derivatives for the entire week.

So, do it. Eat differently. Put aside the leaven and focus on the matzo. Adopt the different set of eating guidelines this week (even if you don’t keep kosher normally). It is a way of understanding the story in a new way, and also has the impact (I speak personally on this one) of causing us to evaluate our relationship to food. Matzo is called both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation: it is simple and plain and the opposite of luxury, and yet also the result of bread not having enough time to rise because of the rush out of Egypt. When we take on the eating practices of Passover, we experience both as well—the affliction of limited resources and the liberation of the ability to make choices. It is a good spiritual practice to experience both.

Clean House: The traditional practice is not only to eat matzo rather than leavened products (called chametz), but to actually rid your house of chametz all together. One is traditionally not supposed to be in possession of chametz during the week, so people will begin to use up their chametz in the days and weeks prior to Passover. That which isn’t eaten can be donated to the Food Bank, or composted or fed to animals. Some have the custom of putting aside the chametz and “selling” it so that it is technically not in one’s possession. (A good option if you want to follow this practice and not waste food.) And then, a big cleaning of the house ensues to find the what is left—the Jewish version of “spring cleaning.”

Take some time over Passover and do your spring cleaning. You can do a physical cleaning and do those infrequent cleaning jobs you have been meaning to get to. You can clean out your closet, and get rid of the chametz—the clothes that you are hanging onto for no good reason, that don’t fit, that you don’t care for anymore. Donate them to someone who will care for them. And do some spring cleaning of yourself, find the chametz within your own soul and swap out the puffed up haughtiness of the leavened for the humility of the unleavened.

Give Birth: When we clean out the chametz, we have room for the new. Passover is a time of renewal—the Israelites are renewed in the process of leaving Egypt—but it is also a spring time festival that honors the renewal of life all around us. The parsley on the seder plate reminds of the new buds of spring, and the egg is a symbol of fertility and new life. We can look around and see rebirth all around us.

So ask yourself, what do I wish to give birth to this Passover? Where do I want to be renewed, and what new endeavor or project or journey (either inner or outer) do I wish to begin? Passover is a time of new beginnings—for our people, for our world and for you. Take the first steps.

Become an Ally—The point of retelling the story during Passover is not just to recount history but to relate the story of the Exodus to the present day. Indeed, the historicity is not even important. What is important is the narrative: an oppressed people is able to see and articulate both its oppression and its vision for a new world and by doing so is able to leave the narrow place (the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, is related to the word for “narrow”) to the great expanse of liberation.

In the Haggadah, the special Passover prayerbook, we are told that we are to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. We are to experience the oppression and the liberation ourselves. And if we are able to not only see the story but live it for ourselves, then we will be able to more deeply understand the struggle for liberation. And if we more deeply understand the struggle for liberation, then we will be more likely to assist those in need of liberation. The Torah speaks of a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and Egyptians leaving Egypt, and there is a midrash that speaks of the Egyptians rising up against Pharaoh. The Exodus wasn’t isolated, we needed allies. And as we tell our story, let’s think about how we can be allies to others in their stories.

And a bonus fifth (like the fifth cup of wine—the cup of Elijah—we put on the table): Recline. We are meant to recline when we do the seder as a symbol of being free. So recline—not just during the Seder but the whole week. Passover has deep theological significance and provides much fodder for reflection and thought. But it is also a holiday, so have fun! Find a way to enjoy the week, experience nature, enjoy good food, do something different and fun.

Chag sameach!

The First and Future Thanksgiving

One of my challenges as a rabbi is to make Judaism relevant across demographics. Part of the challenge comes from the fact that what necessitates how we teach Judaism to kids is different than how we teach Judaism to adults. And very often I find that people who study Judaism as adults are surprised by what they discover because they did not feel the Judaism they were taught as kids spoke to their adult sensibilities, and so were, for a  time, turned off.

Well, of course. Judaism requires life-long study and engagement. What we learn as kids is not going to be the same as adults because what we need, what we understand, what we can grapple with is different as an adult than as a child.

This idea shouldn’t be foreign to our civic education as well since we are oftentimes stuck in a childhood vision of what our early American history and especially Thanksgiving is all about: stories of Pilgirms and Native Americans and a shared feast of mutual respect and understanding.

As adults, though, we know the story is much more nuanced and deeper than what we learn in elementary school. The history of the Native population in this country is a tragic one, complete with the ravages of colonialism, the forced exile, and the persistence of inequality.

Every year, it seems, articles are published to remind us of this. While these articles are of course necessary, they remind me of something—that our education must extend beyond elementary school, and that meanings of events change over time. We tend to forget this. But we shouldn’t be surprised. When we are children we are told simple stories to acculturate us. As adults we are obligated to seek out the more nuanced truth behind these stories. Our mature minds require a mature understanding.

After sitting through our wonderful local Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration this past Sunday, I was struck by the fact that Thanksgiving has a completely different meaning to me now that it did when I was younger. As a child, I was told the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, sharing food in a spirit of fellowship. It was a historical celebration. As an adult, the themes of gratitude and the value of sharing dominate. It is a spiritual celebration.

The story of the “first Thanksgiving” is a myth in the classic understanding of the term—not an untrue story but a story thatexodusgodsandking is meant to convey deeper truths beyond particular events. Myths are not meant to write (or rewrite) history, they are meant to write the future. The mythic story of the Exodus from Egypt (soon to be a major motion picture—again) was not meant to tell the events as they happened, but to tell a paradigmatic story of redemption that is meant to shape our future.

The myth of the “first Thanksgiving” was one of unity and harmony across cultures. It was about an existing population welcoming a newly arriving one. It was about the promise of religious liberty in a new land. On the one hand, this covers up a tragic history. On the other hand, it embodies the ideals for which we hope and strive.

As with the story, so too with the celebration. The Passover seder is not meant to recreate an ancient Israelite meal of days gone by, but rather it is to serve as a symbolic feast of future redemption. That is why we find meaning in the meal, with the symbolic foods of bitterness and redemption not referring exclusively to the biblical story of Egyptian bondage, but to the places we recognize oppression in our own day.

When we sit down to the Thanksgiving meal, we would do well to do the same. The meal is not meant to recreate a historic meal that may or may not have happened. [Though one of the things I find powerful about Thanksgiving is that it is a seasonal celebration as well, and eating seasonal and native foods connects one to this land and time.] The meal is meant to be a time to reflect on where we find gratitude right now, but also where we are falling short as a nation in pursuit of those values of equality, liberty, mutual respect and pluralism.

And we are falling short. The struggles of our Native population persist. We are in a new national conversation about immigration—about who we are as Americans, about the extent of the American dream, and how we as a nation of immigrants treat those newly arrived at our borders.

hands upAnd this week, with the failure of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO to hand down an indictment in the shooting death of an unarmed African-American youth, we are once again confronted by our national legacy of racism, white privilege, and institutional forms of oppression. The failure of our criminal justice system to even be open to the possibility of a trial rightfully inspires anger, fear, suspicion and disappointment.

We have much work to do.

As we mark this Thanksgiving, we do recall that story of the “first Thanksgiving”—but not as some pretty historical gloss. Rather, we recall it for what it really is: a story of promise and pain that contains within it both a devastating history and our highest ideals. Our job is to recognize the all of it, and by doing so, we will be able to transform ourselves and our communities.

Be the Egg

When we sit around the Seder table next week we will have the opportunity to retell the story of the Exodus-of our spiritual ancestors’ oppression of slavery in Egypt and the liberation brought by Moses, culminating in the passing through the Red Sea and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But we are not just retelling the story, we are reliving it, though the eating of symbolic foods, in order, through the ceremony.

The Seder Plate is the repository of most of these symbolic foods. (The matza–unleavened bread–gets its own special place.) On the Seder plate are the greens to symbolize spring, the bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness of oppression, the haroset to symbolize the mortar of hard labor, the roasted shankbone (or beets for vegetarians) to symbolize the Pesach sacrifice and the placement of blood on the lintels (to protect against the plague of the death of the first born). And the egg.

The egg is ostensibly there to represent the korban chagigah-the festival sacrifice which our ancestors would offer up in the Temple in Jerusalem. [Of the symbolic foods on the seder plate, the roasted bone and the egg are the two that are not eaten. Although many have the custom to begin the meal with a hard-boiled egg in salt water, it is not part of the order of symbolic foods eaten during the pre-meal ritual.]

This traditional explanation for the egg is interesting in that it sets the egg apart–the egg therefore is a symbol not of the story of the Exodus itself, but in how the Exodus was remembered by later generations. The egg does not represent a specific element of the Passover narrative, but represents the fact of retelling of the Passover narrative.  We remember the story but we also remember the remembering of the story.

When we tell the story at Passover, time compresses. Our present and our past merge, and the story of liberation of our ancestors becomes the paradigm for liberation for our own day. The egg represents this cyclical nature of time–the past is present is future. The egg, with its round shape, is symbolic of the cycle of life at other times in our tradition as well–a traditional mourner’s meal after a funeral begins with eggs.

But there is more to the egg than that. As I mentioned last week, the use of an egg at this time of year is not exclusive to Jewish practice–witness the many Easter egg hunts which will be happening next week. The egg is the source of new life, a symbol which has universal significance.

The egg on the Seder plate took on a new significance to me since I began raising chickens. I learned that chickens don’t naturally lay eggs in the winter–they need a certain amount of light during the day and there isn’t enough during the wintertime. It is possible to trick chickens into laying all year round by putting lights in their coop, which I tried last year, but after the light kept falling down and other obstacles, I just put it aside.

So it is about this time of year, when the days get longer, that chickens start laying eggs again. Indeed, our two birds just began laying last week. And I set aside the first egg of spring to put on our Seder plate. Eggs are a symbol of spring and a sign of new life because of the cycle of the chicken.

The first egg of the season, produced by my chickens
The first egg of the season, produced by my chickens

And as chickens come out of their dormancy, so do we. Spring is about the renewal of life; we see it happening physically all around us with not only the return of the egg but the budding of plants and trees. Passover–our Spring festival–is about the spiritual renewal of life. We mark the budding of a new consciousness, a new awakening in our hearts. Eggs return, so do we.

And we, like eggs, are fragile. New life emerges from breaking the shells which constrict us, and if not handled cautiously, the premature fracture of the shells can disrupt the process.

This Passover, as we mark our communal liberation, we assess our individual liberation as well. What is your dormancy that you wish to awaken this Passover? Where do you see yourself budding? And how are you, like the egg, the delicate keeper of the potential for new life, ready to break free from a hard, yet breakable, shell?

Chag sameach.