And how do we leave that message?
In Hebrew, the phrase L’DOR VADOR – from generation to generation – expresses one of our main modes of transmitting values across time. Parents teach children, or teachers teach students, and hopefully, the children listen and, in turn, teach their children.
The entire Passover Haggadah is one of the best examples we have of a centuries-old text intended to transmit our tradition across past, present and future. There is something for everyone at a Seder. Even the adults, as well as the children present, learn something new each year from the written texts and visual symbols we use to make the Exodus story come alive.
There are two sections in the Haggadah that refer specifically to educating a new generation: the Four Questions and the Four Children. How many of you have been the one at a Seder designated to ask the four questions? The Torah seemed to anticipate the curiosity of children by stating four times that either a child would ask his or her parents about the Exodus experience or that the parents should tell their children about the tale from year to year. The Four Questions, which are usually put into the mouth of the youngest child, call attention to the uniqueness of the Passover celebration among all of our holidays and practices.
And then there is the midrash of the 4 sons, or children, taken from rabbinic literature. It utilizes the Torah’s four passages about “telling your child on that day” and turns them into four different types of children: as we know, the wise child, the skeptical/cynical/doubting child who is usually called wicked, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t know how to ask.
If I have to choose, at any Seder I lead, someone to read the wicked child’s part, it has to be a person who is a good sport. I haven’t yet found anyone who has refused the reading or failed to understand the significance of that child. Perhaps it is that type of child or adult for whom the Passover Seder can have the greatest meaning if the rituals of Passover guide him or her from a place of rejecting the ritual at hand to a deeper understanding of the core value of the entire Seder: that we are not yet free until all people are free. I have never worried about anyone who is like the wise child, the simple child, and the one who doesn’t yet know how to ask. I think they understand the message about seeking liberty for all. I believe that the RASHA, the wicked child, is not RASHA at all, but a person whose ROSH or head is filled with thoughts and feelings that will lead him or her to challenge the status quo if it needs to be questioned or even changed. In the Four Children passage, the CHACHAM, the wise child, asks about the details of the ritual involved in the Passover observance. The RASHA, however, says, according to the rabbis, “what does this service mean to YOU??” The original verse from that Torah didn’t have that emphasis. Perhaps such a person wouldn’t intend any insult or even rejection of the community by saying “to you.” It could be that “What does this service mean to you?” is the question that we always need to answer on Pesach. It is the challenge that Passover places before us: What does this tale of moving from slavery to freedom mean to you or to us? How are we, like Moses, going to notice which people in the world are not yet free and who is enduring harsh treatment of an uncaring overlord? How are we, right now, going to work for their liberation?
That is why the Haftarah reading from the book of Malachi is so important and why it’s quoted in the Reform Passover Haggadah. Through Malachi, God tells the people, “Behold, I will send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Eternal to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and smite the land with destruction.”
That sounds foreboding, serious, and apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be taken that way. This passage urges the members of any community to listen to one another, to create bonds with each other where no strong ties may exist. It calls on those who have enjoyed long lives to share their wisdom and experience, and those whose experiences have just begun to offer in return their developing values and positive attitudes, including a tendency to believe that we can trust and have faith in each other as we build a better world.
So, with hearts turned towards one another, no matter what our stage of life, we will again celebrate our season of liberation. We will read about the slaves going free, crossing through the parted waters, receiving the Torah, and journeying towards the promised land.
And their redemption and ours will lie in the hope of freedom to come, and in a touch of idealism that can lead us to call for a new perspective when necessary. Perhaps that wicked child would quote George Bernard Shaw, as Robert F. Kennedy often did: “Some see things as they are and say why; others see things as they never were and say why not.” May Passover guide us to that place of vision, of healing, of redemption, and of hope for a promising year to come.