Thought Of The Week
FOUR REAL QUESTIONS
FOR PASSOVER 2014
The Bible assumes that your teenage child will ask questions at Passover time, other than the most well worn: "When do we eat?" "How long do I have to be here?" and "Can I go now?" The Bible does not seem to know our kids. In fact, perhaps Passover is when your teenager gets the most practice asking these archetypal adolescent questions. In addition to giving teenagers plenty of room for their ritually acting out, Passover also returns many adults to adolescent stages in development. I have found that in nearly every family, there is one adult (almost always a guy) who asks the same questions that the adolescents do, one way or another.
The stratagem against the implied boredom and need to flee indicated by these questions is to make the Seder meaningful, or at least fun. Seder fun usually means being distracting enough to make it bearable. I am not against Seder fun and entertainment. Families hardly ever get to participate in planned revelry, games and tomfoolery. Seder fun creates good memories and the desire to come back. We do fun stuff at our Seder, the home and the public one. Hearts and minds might not be devoted to the deeper issue at hand, but we know: make 'em laugh, and hearts and minds will follow.
The Seder circus, however, is at its core a defensive move. We know the Seder is supposed to be meaningful, but we aren't sure how to do it. Not everyone at the table wants it to be meaningful (they just want it to end). Not everyone who wants meaning knows how to help create it.
One step is to make it educational, which is probably the core focus of the Seder anyway. Educate everyone to some deeper level of knowledge of our texts and traditions, some level of knowledge that makes a difference. Let's start with the Bible. Here are a few of the dozens of books that I could recommend that will make anyone a more informed person about the Bible and Torah: The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures by Yoram Hazony; Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman (and any of his other books); God: A Biography by Jack Miles; Genesis: The Beginnings of Desire and Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture by Avivah Zornberg (and anything by Zornberg, who is arguably the greatest Torah teacher of our time). Perusing any of these books will make you able to educate those at your table who are ready to learn into some truly interesting vistas of Bible knowledge.
Or if you want something less religious and denominational and more passive: play for your table any podcast of Krista Tippett's On Being (if you are not listening to her show at least on occasion, you are not fully engaging your humanity, in my deeply judgmental mind).
So we have fun and we have education. There is one more dimension. I'll call it the transformative, because doing this exercise and being there when someone else does it will change you.
One of the questions (from Exodus 12:26) about the Exodus put in the mouth of the child toward the father is "What is this avodah to you?" "Avodah" is a very tough Hebrew word to translate. It means "work" but it also means "pray" and "divine service." Here, it probably refers to the ritual at hand, eating matzah and not eating hametz. In the Haggadah, this question is playfully attributed to a "wicked son," though in the biblical source, there is no indication of this. The Bible sees to take the question as sincere: "Dad/Mom: tell me what all this means to you?"
In Exodus 13:8, an answer is given, even though a child does not ask. It says, "ve-higadta l'bincha" "you shall narrate to your child" whether they ask or not. (This is the verse whence the term Haggadah comes to us).
Let's take this seriously, very seriously. Whether your child asks you or not, or whether there are any parent-children combinations aboard for your Seder or not, every adult (around 16 and older) has to answer roughly four questions, for example:
Do you believe in God? If so, what exactly does that mean to you? If not, is there some principle or idea that you have that makes it so that there are better or worse answers to questions having to do with love, justice, truth and beauty?
What does this tradition mean to you, or what is meaningful to you in this tradition? Tradition understood widely: the texts, the history, the culture, the symbols. If a person at the table is not Jewish, then from their tradition. If a person has no cultural tradition, then they explain how they understand themselves culturally, and what historical tradition speaks to them, and what does it say?
How have your beliefs changed, in matters of religion, spirituality, the good, love, justice, truth and beauty, or whatever matters deeply? What happened? What do you believe now, instead? Or, to get more personal: what kind of person did you want to be? What did you want to accomplish in life? What setbacks have you suffered? How have you succeed in your life's goals? What have you done with failure?
If you were to write an ethical will, meaning, a telling and detailing of what you would like to bequeath to others from all the lessons you have learned from living, what would some parts of that ethical will be?
These are just examples. Every person should come up with their own questions, their own inner journey to share.
There will be wise parents, who will take a shot at this. Maybe they aren't so verbal and intellectually organized, so they will find a quotation or a picture, or piece of music or poetry that tells the story. The wise person will give it a try, and get ready for next year.
There will be wicked people, wicked here meaning usually good people but who here will not even try. Embarrased? Don't want to be held accountable? Will poke fun at others who do? "Everyone has to do it but them."
There will be parents who, talkative as they may be at other times, are a bit flummoxed. They may say that they know there is an answer to all this, but they don't know how to say it. They won't mind being gently questioned.
And there will be those who have never really thought about this stuff. They will watch and listen carefully, and prepare for next year.
Problem is, what song do we sing here, after this version of the Telling? I am sorry to say that I really don't know many songs. Probably hundreds fit (if you see this on Facebook, would you share a couple?). Until I get a better one, the one rolling around in my head right now is CSNY "Teach Your Children."
We all are on the road somewhere, and we do need a code we can live by. We can nourish our children through our dreams, and seek the truth until we die.
Rabbi Mordecai Finley