The Passover Haggadah tells us that the Torah alludes to four children -
the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.
When we go to the Torah, though, it does no such thing.
What is does is to declare that the children of future generations will be curious, or even interested,
about what happened in the past, especially, when they see roasted meat, bitter herbs, and matzah
laid out before them for a certain spring celebration in remembrance of the Exodus.
In thinking about this section of the Torah, the phrase “don’t look back” came to mind for me this year. I am not sure why...
But I do believe that we frequently need to look back, because the foundations of
our culture and our beliefs can be found in what came before us.
What impresses me about this passage is that the Torah, in this passage set as they were first leaving Egypt, was already looking ahead to a scene in the future.
There was, at this early stage of their liberation, a clear vision of the former slaves' children and their children’s children asking questions about this tale of leaving Egypt from the safety of their new homes.
Three of the four passages about the “four children” are in this week’s parashah, Bo.
Here are all four:
And when your child says, “What does this observance mean to you?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to ADONAI because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians but saved our houses.” (Exodus 12:26-27)
“You shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘This is because of what God did for me when I went free out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)
And it shall be when your child asks you in time to come, saying: “What is this?” that you shall say to him: By strength of hand ADONAI brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage. (Exodus 13:14)
When your child asks you in time to come, saying: 'What are the precepts, laws and observances which ADONAI our God has commanded you? Then you will say to your child: 'We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt; and ADONAI brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)
Bible commentator Nehama Leibowitz offered a possible explanation for why the rabbis, in a Midrash collection called “Mekhilta” and in the Palestinian Talmud, recast these verses into the “four children” passage that we know so well: “In three cases, the child approaches the parent, but in Exodus 13:8, the child does not initiate the conversation. The midrash, therefore, deduces that this is a child that does not know how to ask the question. In the three remaining verses, where the child initiates the conversation, two ask a question, but one (in Exodus 12:26) makes a statement. This child, the midrash concludes, is the wicked child who is not questioning, but challenging.” (Taken from maqom.com on this passage).
The rabbis took “What does this service mean to YOU” as an exclamatory remark, rather than a soft inquiry. Each of us likely has at least a glimmer of a similar impulse inside of us, wondering if traditions from the past are still worth keeping, silently but pointedly asking if they still hold meaning for us.
In the verses I will read tonight, there is one mode of remembrance not contained in the other passages: "And this day shall serve you as a sign upon your hand and as a reminder on your forehead - in order that the Teaching of ADONAI may be in your mouth - that with a mighty hand ADONAI freed you from Egypt."
This verse seems to refer to the Tefillin worn the arm and head, just as we read in the V’ahavta early in our service.
I would suggest another interpretation of these "signs" (as others have), that relates to looking back and looking forward at the same time - here in a paraphrase of the verse in Exodus.
Let the remembrance of your slavery be a sign upon your hand, so that, in whatever you do, you will act with compassion, commitment, and dedication to the ideal of freedom.
Let the experience of liberation be a reminder on your forehead, above your eyes, so that when you see new instances of oppression before you, you will act with courage and without hesitation to stop the offenses that could lead to a return to tyranny and bondage.
Let the lessons of the ancient experience of moving from slavery to freedom guide you to value liberty and to defend it with your words, with your wisdom, and with your very lives. It is that important.
And so may we do.