Parshat Tzav Shabbat Hagadol 2017
On Monday night we will be sitting at our seders and ushering in the Passover holiday, Pesach, the most celebrated Jewish holiday in America and elsewhere. It is a glorious holiday with lots of good stories, symbols, and food (even if there are limitations). It is an opportunity for families to join together and retell old stories, share memories, create traditions, and at times (to judge by what is depicted in the movies) to bring all the skeletons out of the closet.
Of the many symbols of the holiday, I will touch on one symbol of seder night and then speak more generally about the Jewish approach to the seder and to children’s education.
At the seder, the third step after Kadesh (Kiddush) and urhatz (washing hands) is Karpas. That’s the green or the potato (depending on your tradition) that we dip in salt water. Traditionally, karpas is related to the green of spring, (and the salt water to the tears we shed in Egypt). But Rabbi Shlomo Riskin cites Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (19th century), who connects our karpas with the karpas that appears in the first paragraph of Megillat Esther that we read on Purim. Karpas there, says Kluger, is a cloth of white and turquoise, one of the hangings in the palace. Rashi connects this cloth with the ketonet passim, the Technicolor coat that Yaacov gave to Yosef.
Furthermore, according to Rabbi Riskin, the Jerusalem Talmud says that the charoset we eat symbolizes the blood of the Jewish babies who were killed in Egypt. And so when we dip the karpas (symbolic of Yosef’s coat) into the charoset (blood) – we are evoking what the brothers did when they dipped Yosef’s coat into goat’s blood to make their father think Yosef had been devoured by animals.
Why this obsession with Yosef on Pesach? Because he is the immediate cause of our stay in Egypt. Because of the blind jealousy the brothers felt toward him, aggravated by Yaacov’s preference for Yosef as symbolized by the coat, the Israelites spent 400 years in Egypt, many of them in slavery.
But it goes further than that. The seder, the haggada, even Shabbat Hagadol – the Shabbat before Pesach – are all intended to deepen family ties and to entice each succeeding generation into the tapestry of Jewish history. Many of us can remember the seders of our youth, the good and the bad parts. Some memories have become so entrenched that nothing we do today can come near the seders we had back then.
This means that while the seder is a vehicle for bringing the family together, it is mainly for the children, and for the children in us if there aren’t any chronological youngsters around. What is it we want to instill in them?
Rabbi Riskin gives a whole lot of high-falutin’ values about monotheism and our commitment to our families and our fellow Jews and our fellow human beings, and that’s all very nice, but I found an answer that speaks to me at least as strongly. It deals not with the content so much as with the style.
What is it we do at the seder? We ask questions, and we perform symbolic acts that are supposed to elicit more questions from the children. Rabbi Jonathan Leener put it this way. With all their wisdom, the rabbis used this auspicious time to instruct in –the importance of asking questions! With all ears listening, at least when we begin the haggadah, Passover night is filled with questions instead of answers — a truly radical pedagogic decision.
A cursory look at our history and at our Jewish bookshelf shows that questioning has been a Jewish way of life throughout. It’s true that when Avraham was commanded to perform acts with negative personal consequences (such as sacrificing his son) he acceded immediately. But if other people were involved, such as the people Sodom, he asked chutzpadik questions like, Will the God of justice not perform justice?
And look at the Talmud. This great compendium of knowledge is a long and rambling series of debates flowing with questions and then questions about the answers that are given. It is an exercise in debate, in questioning everything.
Today, with so much of human knowledge available in our pockets or at the very least in our computers at home, we ask questions all the time – but most of them are superficial. What happened in Yodfat, when did the Dodgers last win the World Series. Strangely, some segments of the Jewish population (and others) try to keep their children away from sources and questions that might provide too much information.
For example, we are trying to give away a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, to make room. Nobody wants it. Schools, libraries, social clubs – don’t need it because they have internet. So we asked some friends who have haredi children and grandchildren and no internet, and they said no. Too much information that they don’t want their children to know about. That is sad. And anti-Jewish.
But we all have the seder, and there we are encouraged to ask questions – whether the answers are satisfactory or not doesn’t matter. The important thing is to ask.
And just as important is spending the holiday together. This is bonding at its best because our family is often our greatest asset. Garrison Keillor wrote that nothing we do for our children is ever wasted. Anything, even just sitting together quietly at dawn, can create a memory that will pop up later and illuminate our childhood better than a thousand words could describe. That’s the seder, and Pesach.