Parashat Aharei Mot / Shabbat Hagadol

Leviticus 16:1–18:30
April 16, 2011 / 12 Nisan 5771

This week's commentary was written by Professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor, JTS.

The Sabbath preceding Passover, Shabbat Hagadol (The Great Sabbath), takes its name from a passage in the haftarah that is chanted in synagogue that morning. "Behold," we read from the book of Malachi, "I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord." Malachi is referring to the ultimate redemption of humanity, to which we look forward at Passover. We place a cup of wine for Elijah on the seder table in expectation of his arrival, and even open the door to greet him and the redemption he portends.

The verse in the haftarah that I find most relevant to the seder, however, is the one that follows: "He [Elijah] shall reconcile parents with children, and children with their parents." This is breathtaking. The means to ultimate redemption—and a sure sign that redemption has arrived—is peace between the generations. We can't hope for redemption of the world, the prophet says, if the hearts of fathers and sons (the literal translation of the prophetic verse) are not "returned upon" each other.

This suggests three questions much harder to answer than the four ritually asked as the Ma Nishtana near the start of every seder:

  1. Why do parents and children need reconciling?
  2. Why is this turning of the heart so difficult to achieve?
  3. How can we accomplish it nonetheless?

One source of the difficulty will likely be apparent to many of the Millennial Generation teens and twenty-somethings sitting at the seder table in this age of Facebook and Twitter. Namely: life has changed so much and so fast in recent years that the young may be right to presume that their parents have fallen hopelessly behind and have little chance of catching up. If you are among that younger generation, your perspective is probably radically different in key respects from that of your elders. As someone of my generation wisely put it, addressing the Millennials in the audience, "We are now guests in your century."

The young hosts may well ask, "How can my parents and their parents possibly understand me if they can't even use their smartphones without help?" Or, "Why do they expect that things important and meaningful to them are necessarily going to be meaningful and important to me?" Judaism, for example. Or the seder. The Millennials reading this column (and I hope older readers will share it with those close to them) may already be old enough to remember with nostalgia the years when they indulged their proud families (and showed off a little too) by saying the Ma Nishtana by heart. Now they have a better sense of what the words mean, but may not be sure they mean anything to them.

That may be the most important aspect in which this night really is "different from all other nights," or at least from the time when the parents of today's Millennials were young: one can no longer take Jewish identity or concern for granted. Just because a person was raised to be a Jew does not mean that he or she will remain a Jew, let alone the kind of Jew (Conservative, for example) he or she was raised to be. It certainly does not mean that he or she will marry a Jew or care about raising Jewish children. Passover remains a favorite holiday of Jews in North America at the start of the 21st century, but this too may soon change. The young bring questions to the seder table that my generation never thought to ask. The seder might be a lot more meaningful to everyone if those questions were addressed.

In that spirit, and following the Haggadah's encouragement of additional questioning—"Everyone who enlarges [on the story] merits praise"—I propose that we further the reconciliation of parents to children, and children to parents, by means of the following three-part experiment at this year's seder:

  1. What if the Millennials at the table composed four additional questions for the Ma Nishtana, had them recited by the eldest in the room, and then discussed them with everyone at the seder table?
  2. Suppose those present were asked to consider archetypes of Four Parents, formulated from the perspective of their children—in addition to the archetypes of Four Children put in place by the ancestors long ago?
  3. And suppose the young took upon themselves the additional commandment to "tell your father and mother on that day, saying, 'This is because of what the Lord will do for me when I go forth from Egypt.'"?

I assume, for the purpose of this experiment, that everyone at the table agrees that listening to questions set by the young would be a significant first step in the direction of redemption. What would such a seder text look like? I consider my three experiments in reverse order.

Experiment Three: The story of "going forth from Egypt" is held up to us by the Haggadah, not merely as proof that redemption can occur—because it once did occur—but as a model or metaphor of what future redemptions, partial and ultimate, should look like. The Millennials leading the seder would need to decide which questions, all with the aim of leaving Egypt, are most worth asking and how we should go about answering them. What do you, regardless of age, plan to do on behalf of redemption "when you grow up?" What are you doing right now? What does it mean to you that one day the world will "go forth from Egypt"? Does that vision or hope for the future have anything to do with the Egyptian uprising this year against Egypt's most recent pharaoh and similar democratic movements elsewhere in the world? And what role do you imagine God playing in the transformation of historical reality? Do you think God, however you think about God (How do you think about God?), plays any role in contemporary history?

Experiment Two: At my seder, the Haggadah's description of the Four Children (traditionally rendered as the Four Sons) never fails to stimulate lively discussion. Do we understand wisdom as the text does? Are we comfortable with calling children wicked just because they sneer at Passover observance? Who is the innocent child and what are his or her needs? The fourth child, who does not know how to ask, seems to elicit the most sympathy, perhaps because she or he also arouses the greatest identification from contemporary Jews. We want someone to "open the tradition" to us. We enjoy it when those present at the seder open up to one another.

How would you, the Millennials in the room, describe and address the analogous types of parents? Here's a start, but only a start: Perhaps the wise parent is one who never responds to serious questioning with a pat answer, while the wicked parent has no patience for doubt and no room for commitments contrary to his own. The simple parent mistakenly assumes that quoting Scripture and thanking God without further explanation will mean something to young people who may not find either Scripture or God authoritative. The parent who does not know how to ask will likely elicit most discussion at the table because this is the parent with whom many Millennials are familiar. Such parents are so far from understanding your lives or your ways of thinking that communication seems utterly hopeless. They don't know what to ask you, or how. If you don't open the door to them, the gap of silence between generations is only going to grow.

Experiment One: The additional set of questions may underline another reason—disturbing and profound—for why the generations so need reconciling to one another. The parents have lived through a great deal that they do not want the children to know about, let alone experience. They have too often failed, and the world has failed them. They have more than once visited the sins of their own parents upon their children and are ashamed. The world has broken their hearts. They have, in short, "been to Egypt," perhaps remain trapped in narrow places, and, if free for the moment, fear that life may drag them back. All this they know and cannot say. They don't want you to know it, but suspect you do—and are sadly confident that someday you will. This week's parashah, after all, is called Aharei Mot (After the Death). People die, sometimes when young. Hope too dies—and with it, perhaps, the ability to work on behalf of redemption.

Rituals like the seder are designed to say difficult things like this indirectly. They enable us, who so rarely get things right in life, to learn what it feels like to get something exactly right. They get us thinking, in safe spaces, about dangerous possibilities. Surrounded with good food and people who love us, we can retell the sacred story, with all its curses and blessings, in a way that takes the story forward.

We need new questions at Passover, and new answers, lest we allow those who know all about the past to convince us that every idea we have for change is bound to fail because it has already been tried and failed. For redemption to take place there must be a great deal "new under the sun" and we must help to create it. New questions from a new generation are a beginning.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.