Tradition of Passover: Tappers and Listeners

Traditions Passover

As the magnificence and magic of the Seder night settles over us, we can step back from our daily concerns and refocus our attention on our tradition that flows from the ancient past through us into the yet-unwritten future.

By Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Passover is a link that connects us with our past, which is why passing on the tradition vividly we keep that link strong. We can better understand our role in passing on our tradition by looking at a clever psychology experiment that was conducted 25 years ago.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student named Elizabeth Newton earned her Ph.D. in psychology by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Each tapper was asked to choose a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm of that song on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped out.

Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners correctly identified only three!

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology: before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50 percent. Interestingly, the tappers got their message across only 1 time in 40, but they were sure that they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

You see, if you are the tapper, it’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. If you’re the listener you can’t hear that tune—all you can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a discombobulated Morse code. In the experiment, tappers could not understand why the listeners had to work so hard to pick up the tune. Wasn’t the song obvious? How could they be so clueless? The problem is that tappers had knowledge—the song title—that made it very hard for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they were tapping, they couldn’t imagine what it was like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.

That gap in understanding was the same challenge that faced the Jewish people who came out of Egypt. They had first-hand knowledge because of their own experience: they heard G-d, saw His wonders, and experienced His presence. How then could they communicate that knowledge, the Divine melody of Judaism and its ideals of justice, righteousness and compassion, to the next generation who were not there?

The answer given by Moses is this: just as the Jews were about to leave Egypt—at that most pivotal moment in Jewish history—the Bible tells us that Moses gathered them and spoke to them about children, and the distant future, and their responsibility to share their knowledge with generations yet unborn.

“And when, in the distant future, your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that G-d brought us out from Egypt (Exodus 13:14).”

Moses instructed us to pass forward the memory of that moment to our children. We have to teach children how to build a society unlike Egypt, based not on wealth or power, but on justice and compassion, the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of human life—a society that honors the word of G-d. We have to continually remind them of the lessons of history, “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” because those who forget the bitterness of slavery eventually lose the will and the courage to fight for freedom.

Teach your children these things, but do not do so in a harsh way; do it in an exciting way. Encourage your children to ask questions, make a Passover Seder and reenact the Exodus by reliving the events each year as if they were happening now. In other words, recreate your “tapper” experience so the “listeners” will understand it. That is how each generation hands on to the next what it has heard, learned, and prayed for.

Encourage your children to ask questions, make a Passover Seder and reenact the Exodus by reliving the events each year as if they were happening now.

The most important statement in all of the Haggadah says that, “In every generation, each person must see himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt.” As we read the Haggadah, we make the leap across time and turn past into present, saying “it is because of what G-d did for me when I went out of Egypt.” The listener becomes a tapper as we are lifted by the story, the past lives on in us and the event speaks to us in the first person singular.

Years before the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 which divided the Holy Land into Jewish and Arab states, an earlier plan was offered that would have given the aspiring Jewish state a meager parcel of land, militarily indefensible and economically not viable. David Ben Gurion, head of what was then called the Provisional Jewish State, was unsure whether or not to accept the UN’s offer.

Ben Gurion greatly respected Yitzhak Tabenkin, a founder of the Kibbutz movement. He asked Tabenkin for his advice, and resolved to abide by whatever he decided. Tabenkin asked for 24 hours, insisting that he had to seek the counsel of two individuals.

The next day, Tabenkin advised Ben Gurion to reject the plan. “I accept your decision,” said Ben Gurion, “You are the wisest man I know. But just tell me, who are your advisors?

“I had to ask two very important individuals,” responded Tabenkin, “I sought counsel from my grandfather who died ten years ago, and my grandson who is not yet born.” That recognition of the continuity between past, present and future should guide us.

On Passover we link our songs and prayers to all of those generations of Jews who preceded us, and our grandchildren not yet born, in a vast symphony called the Seder. Each of the four cups we raise is not only a toast to the past, but to a future commitment. The story we tell is not yet done. It begins with our ancestors, three thousand years ago, and it continues with us, and our children here, now. It is our turn to tap and to listen, to make sure we understand the story, and then to add our piece to it for generations yet to come.