Teaching The Story

Passover Traditions


By Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun

One of the most important themes of the Passover holiday is the concept of וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְ —Vehigadeta  levincha—and you shall relate (the Passover story) to your child. The book used at the Seder table is called a Haggadah from the Hebrew word Lehagid—to say. In addition, the Hebrew word for Passover is Pesach which can symbolically be divided into two sub-words: Pe [mouth] and Sach [speaking]—a speaking mouth.

Another core and central theme of the Passover holiday is the idea of freedom and liberty. Of the great value of freedom and of its sacred importance, I need only bring you the words of Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” How, through the telling of the unfolding events in Egypt, are we expressing to our children the moral and merit of freedom? As we open the Haggadah, we find that the story is retold to our children through questions and answers. Actually the story is not really being told; it is a dialogue we are having with our children. We are having a conversation. What is the purpose of this discussion? After all, Passover is the holiday that marks our nationhood, subsequently followed by the events at Mount Sinai. Shouldn’t our tradition be passed down by way of instruction and command rather than by way of dialogue? Shouldn’t it be dictated and decreed rather than presented in question and answer format?

Passover- TraditionsHere, the Torah is teaching an extremely important and valuable fundamental in initiating children through a process of education and learning. Beyond the over-arching idea of the right for self-determination represented within the broader concept of freedom, the first, most immediate, most basic and most fundamental manifestation of that right is freedom of speech; plain, simple, straightforward…the freedom to speak, the freedom to say what you think and feel, the freedom to express.

It is now crystal clear why the conversation format is so paramount in the transmission of these tenets to our children. They are free to speak, ask, wonder, question and think. We are giving them the ABCs of freedom, the bedrock foundation of a healthy perspective on life and morality.

Moreover, we give the podium to the youngest child, symbolically indicating our desire to make sure that every voice is heard, that every perspective is brought to the forefront of the conversation, even that of the young and less sophisticated. In addition, by encouraging the youngest child to speak up we are boosting their self-esteem and sending our children a very powerful message that we value their opinion and participation. This in turn creates stimulus and incentive as well as a sense of belonging, importance and worthiness. This sanction and warrant to speak freely ultimately results with our children being able to express their originality and distinguish themselves as individuals, which is so essential and rudimentary in the genesis of their self-determination, at the dawn of their character development.

Another point to consider is the need—in any learning process—to speak freely, have a conversation, challenge, deliberate and debate, simply for the elementary purpose of understanding. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) chapter 2 Mishnah 6,
Hillel teaches: 
לֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד Lo habaishan lamed—a timid, reserved and apprehensive person cannot learn. One must speak up and ask if one is to learn anything in life. The Talmud is structured exactly based on this model of  שקלא וטריא Shakla Vetaria—the technique of back and forth deliberation and contemplation which facilitates and fosters clear comprehension and conception of the subject matter. After having considered all the variables and ramifications, and after having extracted the essentials and critical information, you are ready to establish the parameters of the conversation and narrow it down, and commit it to a clear, transparent, intelligible and discernible conclusion. That only happens through a question and answer system of careful reflection and analysis.

Religion and education don’t fare so well with preaching and rhetoric

Finally and perhaps most importantly, our kids cannot just be told what to do. Religion and education don’t fare so well with preaching and rhetoric. Ordering our children around, dominating and controlling them will not bring about a healthy result. Hillel also says וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד velo hakapdan melamed—the impatient, agitated, rigid and intimidating teacher cannot teach. This is not to say that being authoritative is not important. Kids need authority. They need guidance and counsel. They need direction, objectivity and perspective. They need to be positioned and given rules and a frame within which to work, experience, observe and absorb. But if we want our children to make us proud, we ought to strike the right balance between authority and independence, between conformity and autonomy, between conventionality and individuality and between compulsion and self-determination. That equilibrium must be separately established with regards to every single child if our young ones are to be championed to thrive and succeed in life.

We should teach and tell our children:

Each one of you can achieve great things. All you have to do is dream, and dream big! One of you can find the cure to cancer or diabetes. One of you can be the next CEO of the startup company that will change the way people think and do business. One of you can even inspire a generation of men and women to believe in the self-generating power of love and kindness. One of you can touch the hearts of millions. Don’t limit yourselves. Don’t compromise. Don’t settle for second best. Tap into your potential. You’re all so talented, so bright, so motivated. Have courage to excel and don’t be afraid to fail. If you stumble and fall, stand up and try again. Sometimes falling and failing are the greatest lessons life has to offer. It’s how we rise and bounce back after we experience disappointment that makes us great. Setbacks could provide new perspectives, an opportunity for a fresh, new start, healthy self-reflection and soul-searching evaluation. Celebrate life for all its beautiful things. Become curious about life’s mysteries. Love life and love people. Trust your intuition. Listen to your feelings. Follow your heart. Explore your G-d-given gifts and always keep your family and friends close to you. Be diligent with your studies and resolved in your decisions. Be excited to discover. Love to learn and dare to experience. Know how to forgive. Teach others what you know, and love G-d for His never ending love for you.

Wishing you all a happy and Kosher Passover!