Engaging Our Sons and Daughters at the Seder Table

| Pesah By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Apr 4, 2009 / 5769 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

I’ll be thinking a lot about my roles as father and son at the seder this year. Having lost my dad between last Passover and this one (my mom died eleven years ago), I’ll be sitting down at the seder table for the first time as someone without living parents. They will be there, of course, but only in vivid memory, and so more than ever before the question of what kind of son I have been—wise? wicked? simple? unable to ask the right questions? all or none of the above?—will be very much on my mind.

Following the lead of the Haggadah, I’d like to engage sons and daughters of all ages in such introspection. I write particularly for seder participants who are the age of my own son and daughter: teens, college students, and twentysomethings. If you are in that category, you are probably wondering this Passover how you fit (if you fit) into the categories the Passover Haggadah sets forth. You may well be asking, as you sit down at the table, whether you want to make this story of the ancestors your own, not just for an evening, but for life.

Let me say first of all that a seder in which such questions are not asked—with a measure of thoughtfulness and honesty just as full as the joy and bounty of the holiday—in my view misses a precious opportunity that is built into the Haggadah itself. “Whoever enlarges upon the story of the Exodus deserves praise.” This is Judaism, after all. Our tradition has no interest in rote performance of this or any other ritual. It sees no point in simply mouthing the words on the page or going through the motions of observance. For serious work awaits us after the seder. We’re here to make the world better.

That, I think, is why—even before the annual retelling of the Exodus gets underway—the Haggadah tells us of five rabbi-ancestors two thousand years ago who became so involved in telling the story about the redemption from Egyptian bondage of the ancestors we share with them that their seder lasted until the morning. The ritual we are celebrating wants all of us—our passion and our intelligence, our compassion and our sense of humor. It wants first of all our hard questions. There is no other way to move redemption forward.

Right after the story of those rabbi-ancestors, the Haggadah directly raises the question of what kind of heirs we want to be to our parents, our tradition, and our world. “The Torah speaks about four types of children: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know how to ask.” Many years ago, the cartoonist Dick Codor and I worked on an edition of the Haggadah that illustrated this passage with the four Marx Brothers—distinct personalities who are easily told apart but also bear obvious traces of one another. The beautiful Moss Haggadah includes four mirrors at this point in the text so that each of us can see ourselves in every type of child; the illustrator of the Haggadah published by the Rabbinical Assembly in 1982 drove home the same lesson by putting parts of each son’s distinctive color into all four sons. Feminist Haggadot have had little trouble transforming the sons into daughters. The four character-types seem eternal and gender-neutral, yet too simple to capture any actual person. I do not know anyone who is all-wise or wholly simple. Rarely does one encounter pure evil in this world. Nothing is either/or when it comes to human character. We are each a complex mixture of past and possibility.

Indeed, if the discussion at your seder proceeds as mine have often done, you find yourself asking if we should maybe not talk about character at all but about actions. Not about what people allegedly are but about what they do. Redemption comes closer, the Haggadah seems to suggest, when we stop labeling people as this or that type (or color or gender), in the mistaken belief that we thereby capture something essential about an individual person that way, let alone the truth about a whole group of people. Let us ask rather about what each person does: what questions he or she asks and answers. The villain of the Passover story, after all, is not Egypt but Pharaoh, who is reviled not for being himself (we never learn his name) but for being cruel. Most of the Torah’s commands are addressed to us in second person singular. Our scripture does not seek to engage people in general or even Jews in general. It wants you, and it wants me.

Bearing that in mind, let’s look more closely at the four children. The wise (or learned) child is the one immersed in the life most respected by the rabbis who wrote the Haggadah. He loves to study Torah. He wants to know what God wants of him: what he should do, now and always. His question is answered with a full discussion of the laws of Passover, down to the last detail. “Nothing should be eaten after the afikoman.” To which many contemporary readers of the Haggadah would say: ho hum. Is this type of learning really the highest ideal of our tradition? Does Judaism seriously expect us to sign onto something apparently so elitist, so self-absorbed, so detached from the world outside of ritual? If a person has no interest in acquiring the kind of knowledge this son is after, does that make her the opposite of wise? Is the wisdom that uninterested person does prize irrelevant to Judaism? These are fair questions. They demand good answers.

I’d begin by reinterpreting the response given by the Haggadah. Let’s remember where this piece of afikoman came from. A few minutes before, we took the middle matzah of the three on the seder plate, broke it in half, and hid the larger of its two pieces for the afikoman. I’ve always believed that the three matzot stand for redemptions past (Egypt), present, and future (Messiah). What we have now, in this or any present, is partial redemption at best. We wander in the wilderness. Our children will get to the Promised Land, and if not they, then their children. The small piece of redemption to which we can point in our experience is worthy of praise and gratitude. We can and must build on it. But the larger possibilities it holds will not be visible until we act to make them so. At the seder we hide them away—so that our children can seek and find them. We then eat that afikoman at seder’s end, and nothing more, so that we leave the table with the taste of redemption-to-come on our lips.

That is what the wise child needs to know: that he, she, we, can make a difference in this world. Torah points the way.

The wicked want none of this. “‘What is all this avoda (service, work, ritual) to you?’ To you, and not to him.” He has separated himself from the community by denying the ikkar, the main point—which to the rabbis meant God’s role in history. Match his detachment with your own. Just as he quoted scripture correctly but with an intent that is the very opposite of the original, so you should say to him, quoting scripture, “this is done because of what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt”—me and not him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

This is hard to say of anyone, let alone to anyone, so hard that many Haggadot soften the paragraph or reinterpret it out of existence. But I do not want to go in that direction. One of the things I most value about the Torah, even when I find it troubling, is its frankness. No sentimentality in this book. No cover-ups. No fairy-tale God or goody-goody ancestors. The Torah gives us the world as it is, was, and ever shall be (until Messiah comes): a world that contains genocide as well as altruism, cruelty mixed in with kindness. This is the world in need of redemption. If the Haggadah wants to speak of wickedness, I want to hear it and follow its passion home to the source. What does the text want from me so badly? What is it afraid of?

The answer is apparent: the text is afraid that we will stand aside from the community and shirk the responsibility to which the seder calls us. If we spurn the questions of the Haggadah, if we decide even before listening to them that they are not addressed to us, we will not respond to them. We will duck responsibility. Not sharing in the story of redemption from Egypt, we might conclude that redemption is not possible, and so fail to take part in the work of further redemption. This the rabbis could not abide.

This answer, I expect, provokes another question in some readers. Why do I have to join the redemptive work as a Jew, a member of this community? What about the rest of my self? Does it not count? And what about the rest of humanity? Do they not count? Could I not work for the world’s redemption as a Christian, a Buddhist, or a secular humanist?

The Haggadah seems from this perspective to be a relic from a time, not so long ago, when a person was either Jewish or an enemy of Jews (or at least not a friend); when Jews did not sit around the seder table—as we do—with friends, relatives, even spouses, who are not Jews. The question once assigned to the wicked child—”what is this to you,” as if he or she could flee from the fate of the Jews, try to pass for a non-Jew, hide from the world and his or herself—hasn’t it become one that many Jews ask, and ask legitimately, now that they look in on Judaism from the outside, and regard it as one among several alternatives from which they can choose to fashion their identity?

Yes, it has. Wickedness has morphed into honest questioning. The second son has become the third: the tam, who asks in all simplicity, “What is all this?” The answer has to be equally straightforward: yes, of course one does not have to be a Jew to be good, to serve God, or to work for the redemption of the world. This declaration is to my mind one of the glories of our tradition. It was taught by the same sages who authored the Haggadah two thousand years ago. Don’t be Jewish to save yourself in the afterworld but to join a community dedicated to saving this world, here and now.

Indeed, I suspect that part of the intention of the seder is to have younger Jews ask these questions not from a safe distance but around a table, piled high with food and fellowship, at which you know you belong. You don’t learn about friendship or love from reading books about these things but by being a friend, being in love. You don’t learn to sail or dance or play viola from afar. Step into this experience too. Come close to the seder. Engage. You soon realize that the story we are telling at the seder is quintessentially Jewish—it happened to Jews more than once, we bequeathed it to the world—and yet it is not only Jewish, it has not happened only to Jews, and so it has been adopted by many groups as their own and has helped them move toward liberation. The Passover story reminds us that in working for redemption as Jews—whether in the civil rights movement or in the Soviet Jewry movement, whether as part of a coalition to end genocide in Darfur or working to bring peace to Israel—we do not set ourselves apart from the world but join it for the good of all.

The Haggadah answers the honest, direct question, “What is this?” with the no-less direct assertion, “Because God redeemed us with a strong hand from Egypt, from the house of slaves.” The key word in this declaration is us. We say this as Jews, and we say this as human beings. Every person at the seder can affirm it in some way. Have you never been in strait places, the Haggadah demands, and been set free to roam wider expanses of possibility? Have you never experienced the grace of a “Power not ourselves who works for righteousness?”

And—if you are a Jew—do you not understand how much of what scars and enriches you, fires your imagination and shapes your mind and heart, roots you and gives you flight—comes from the history, the commitments, the habits of the people Israel? I’d wager that the deeper you plunge into your Jewishness, the less you will be able to mark the line where the human being you are stops and the path of Torah takes over, or vice versa.

The simple child is awarded the shortest question by the Haggadah, and the shortest answer. That is because her question is the most telling-and the answer requires nothing less than a lifetime.

“But the child who does not know how to ask, you open for him, as it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day, saying…” Tell him—ve-higadta: the word, the command, is the one from which the Haggadah derives. How answer the question not asked? Set a table with particular symbols on a particular evening, or join a table already set in that way, so that everyone there can become part of a group and—in good spirits nurtured by four cups of wine and lots of good food—ask why they are sitting at that table with those symbols on this evening, what it all means, and go forth more determined than ever to redeem everyone caught in every house of slavery. Open the door wide for such people. Open yourself wide to the questions you’d rather avoid but that they need you to answer.

I love this holiday—and not just for the turkey cooked according to my mother’s recipe, or the rite conducted with my father’s mix of piety and humor. The seder directs me, grounds me, fills me with far more than food and wine. You may be at sea, the Haggadah seems to say; you may be facing a host of troubles that surround you on every side. So little is simple in the world; so much wisdom has failed us this year as every year; so much wickedness has gone unchecked. But together we sons and daughters can open a door for Elijah, the prophet who announces Messiah, as our ancestors did before us. We can accomplish redemption. The answer to the seder’s questions, when all is said and done, comes not in words but in action, in hope. Go for it, the text urges. The rest of the story begins now, here, with us. Get moving.

May it be a joyous Passover for all of us.

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