I am fortunate to be able to teach to people who know how to ask questions. My students are part of the universe of transmitters and receivers of Judaism. Yet I sometimes wonder about people who are not in my orbit. It is as if a traveler comes to Earth and occupies himself with its inhabitants and their activities, and then looks out into the vast deep darkness of space and wonders who is out there in that domain of silence.
Many Jews are like the fourth son of the Passover Hagaddah, the son who does not know how to ask. The Hagaddah responds to that son even though he does not ask a question. The response is a quote from this week’s parasha, concerning the future observance of Passover:
You shall tell (v’higgadeta, same root as Haggadah) your son on that day, saying, because of this which God did for me when He brought me out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)
Samson Raphael Hirsch, communal rabbi and commentator from mid 19-Century Germany, explains this response in his commentary to the Haggadah. Hirsch notes that we are to speak of God not as the God of our nation, or our ancestors but of ourselves. If one seriously wishes to raise his children as Jews, he will first endeavor to become a truly accomplished Jew himself. The Passover story is not to be told in the way that children are told memories of the past. Hirsch explains that if one celebrates Passover and performs its mitzvot, not simply as a memorial to an event in history but as foundation of one’s own existence, then the child will accept from the parent this ever-renewing heritage of redemption and consecration.
What goes for Passover goes for other holidays as well. There is a crucial difference between Jewish holidays and secular holidays such as Thanksgiving or Independence Day. The secular holidays are a view toward that past that rarely provide a bridge to the present or future. The Jewish holidays are intended to be part of the education mission of Judaism: to recall the past precisely for the purpose of showing its ongoing meaning in the life of individual Jews today.
Jewish life has been revitalized in many ways and for many people. Yet there are still too many Jews for whom Judaism is a faint transmission being heard occasionally on a static-filled receiver. It is the responsibility of the transmitters to boost the power of the transmission. It is also the responsibility of the receivers to endeavor, as Hirsch put it, to become truly accomplished Jews themselves.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi