Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 8th Nisan 5776, 16th April 2016
Shabbat Hagadol, the great Shabbat, on which we read about Hayom Hagadol v’hanora – the great and awesome day – in the haftarah, tells us that at this time next week we will be swimming in matza and a variety of kosher lepesach foods. Not that it is so difficult to keep Pesach today. I have seen kosher l’pesach rolls and bagels, neither of which is worth the calories or the disappointment.
But Pesach is intriguing because it downplays the usual format for nationalistic holidays of independence and liberty. Even our great victory over the Egyptians is symbolically modulated, first by tipping out some wine from our cups with the mention of the plagues (symbolically reducing the level of our joy) because our celebration was contingent on others dying, and then by reading only the shortened version of Hallel after the first day, for the same reason. Schadenfreud is not a positive Jewish value, no matter how much we may practice it.
The centerpiece of Pesach (beyond eating matza) is the seder, a ritual that embodies all the main themes and emphases that we are expected to adhere to.
The object of the seder, and of the holiday as a whole, is educational – to recount the story of the exodus from Egypt to our children. The commandment to tell our children appears when the Israelites are preparing for the exodus, from which we understand that some of the rituals are intended for educational purposes.
We see this in the seder. We begin eating by dipping some greens in salt water. Wait a minute, a child is expected to ask, don’t we usually start with bread, or meat? What’s with the greens?
The Socratic method of education is based on questions and answers. But we preceded him. The Torah tells us: If your child should ask (or when your child asks) about the Torah and mitzvoth and the exodus from Egypt – we are expected to discuss the subject with them.
The problem, as with prayers which are supposed to come from our hearts, is that children (or adults) can’t always come up with the right words. So for the seder night we give the children a formulaic set of four questions, which they take great pride (or shame) in reciting (or not reciting). We are trying to draw them into discussion.
To further keep them interested and awake we let them steal the afikoman, with the promise (hopefully not forgotten) that we will pay for its return. And we sing songs.
But it’s the content that emphasizes education. The most prominent section in this regard is the discussion of the four types of children – the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who doesn’t know how to ask.
Many interpretations have been offered for these four types but here’s a particularly educational explanation from Rabbi Yirmiya Malevsky. The wise child is the one who learns and who is curious and asks pertinent questions about our actions. But if we do not respond well to his questions, either by not answering them or even worse, telling him to shut up, his erudition may turn to maror, bitterness, which will be picked up by his sons, who then become the wicked or wayward generation of kids who don’t want to hear or learn anything about YOUR Jewish heritage. They won’t educate their children in Judaism, so the third generation will be simple in terms of knowledge of Judaism – all they can ask is “what” and even if they have some curiosity it will not lead them to an interest in their heritage. This will lead to the fourth generation, children who feel that Judaism could not possibly provide intellectual stimulation and so they don’t know where or how to begin investigating. If they don’t learn, there won’t be a fifth generation at the seder.
And here’s a pearl from Rabbi Yaacov Yitzhak Horowitz, the Seer of Lublin, quoted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin:
“I prefer the wicked person who knows he is wicked to the righteous who thinks he is righteous.” At least the wicked person is honest. The righteous one can be insufferable.
The message is that education is the key to continued cultural and religious and national survival. To be sure education begins in the home. But each family is responsible only for its children. As a culture, education is instilled through the schools, which reflect national trends.
Speaking in broad generalizations, in this country we have forces working in two diametrically opposed directions, each of which can lead to cultural suicide.
On the ultraorthodox side, education is only Talmud and religious matters, especially rituals. The products of that education can learn a daf gemorrah but barely earn a subsistence level income in today’s world. The children in this case are continuing the chain of learning but are dooming their material and cultural survival. No flour – no Torah.
On the secular side is an education system in which both religion and much of the millennia of Jewish culture are basically ignored or even taboo so that in terms of cultural-religious upbringing, the children’s range of options is limited to only two of the sons: the simple and the don’t know how to ask. They can make good livings but they don’t know much about their extended cultural heritage, which makes it easier for them to be tempted by other cultures and religions. Of course this is a gross generalization.
The funny thing is that our children probably know much more than we did at their age, and they know much more about many sophisticated things that we can’t get our heads around. But the depth: sometimes superficial is a compliment. There’s no Jewish continuity there.
And so we have Pesach every year, another chance to begin the teaching process, and for all of us, the learning process too. Because it’s never too late to learn.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’sameach to us all