Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Pesach is upon us.  This usually ushers in great trepidation for house keepers.  However, I'd like to believe that heads of household are equally concerned with the material to be presented at the Seder as with the food to be served.  The essence of the night is pedagogic, rather than gastronomic.  So, with that in mind, let's talk educational goals for the night.  The first thing you need to do is make a lesson plan.  To do this you must know the objective of the lesson, then the level of the students, and, finally, the activities designed to guide the students towards that objective.  I know who the primary students are, because the source of this mitzvah to teach at the Seder is:  And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, "Because of this, the Lord did this for me when I went out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8)."  Obviously the basic pupil is your child.  However, I don't know their age or aptitude, so, I can't help with two thirds of your lesson plan.  But I can give important advice on the most crucial question, namely, what is my teaching goal for the evening?

            To tell the truth, our Sages really gave us a lesson plan.  We call it the Haggada.  Twenty five hundred years ago the Men of the Great Assembly began composing this small book.  It has grown over the centuries, but it's still a modest tome.  But it still requires some work to pinpoint the central idea.  Raban Gamliel gives us some guidance by telling us that if we haven't explained the significance of the Pesach sacrifice, the Matzah and the Maror (bitter herb), we haven't fulfilled our obligation.  Although there is some controversy, we assume that the obligation he's referring to is the mitzvah of telling the children about the exodus from Egypt.   What is Raban Gamliel teaching us?  That to succeed in telling the story we need to understand the message within the three most important visual aids of the evening.  The Holy Shaloh (R. Yeshayahu Horowitz, 1565-1630) gave three interpretations of the trio.  He first suggested that they represent the past, present and future.  He later wrote that they represent Divine worship, Torah study and acts of loving kindness.  Finally he posited that they symbolize being sound of soul, body and finances.  

             Rabbi Jonathan Sacks the charismatic and scholarly Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom explained that our troika of symbols is teaching us that freedom requires three institutions, namely parenthood, education and memory.  He makes a powerful argument based upon different aspects of the Seder experience.  With great unease, I will humbly disagree or at least amend this position.  I believe that Raban Gamliel is teaching us that the first principle of freedom symbolized by the Paschal sacrifice is commitment.   The taking of the lamb on the tenth of Nissan showed that the Jews, while still trapped in Egypt, had transferred their loyalty from their erstwhile masters to God.  This momentous shift of allegiance, perhaps, signaled the actual instant of redemption.  Without this firm commitment on the part of the Jews there may have never been an exodus.  The Jews earned their departure.

            I believe that this commitment led to the education process represented by the Matza.  Matza is a very complex symbol.  At the outset of our Seder we break one Matza and declare that it is the bread of poverty or affliction.  So, at the beginning of the evening Matza represents the slavery.  However, by time we've completed telling the story, Raban Gamliel tells us that Matza is the symbol of the redemption.  Well, which is it?  The answer, of course, is both.  Perhaps the greatest lesson of the night and of the Holiday is that the stuff of slavery can be the stuff of freedom.  This is because life is what we make of it.  Freedom isn't based upon what we have, but based upon our attitudes towards the components of our lives.  The Matza is us.  The whole Matzot are freedom.  The broken Matza is servitude.  This is the essence of education to take what we have, make the best of it and try to understand its significance.

            The third component is Maror, which is all about remembering.  Just as Rabbi Sacks has informed us, the third leg of this triangle is memory.  Our national identity is based upon our national memory.  We are required to keep the taste of Matza on our palate as the Seder ends, but we're required to keep the bitter taste of Maror throughout our lives.  When we forget the oppressions of our past, we become vulnerable in our future.  This memory is our guide to our future.

            Does this mean that I reject Rabbi Sack's placement of parenting in a central place to the achievement of freedom?  No, not at all.  Look back in the Haggadah.  What comes right after Raban Gamliel has informed us of the importance of these three core symbols?  We are told that as a result of this new insight we must internalize the Egypt experience in every generation.  This feeling must be so pervasive that we actually can say that we ourselves have emerged from Egyptian bondage.  Then we can tell our children the story, because it is now our story.  Parenting has a crucial role in Judaism and the quest for freedom, but we can only be good parents and guides to the next generation after we have learned the essential message.                   

            Maimonides has a variation in our text.  Our version reads that we must see ourselves as those who left Egypt.  Maimonides claims that we should say that we must show others that we emerged from slavery.  Who are these others?  In the present reading of the text, I believe that Maimonides required us to show our children that we ourselves have experienced this phenomenon.  Ultimately, it's all about parenting, and the best parenting is by example.  We can only be good examples if we have internalized the message through commitment, education and memory.

            So, as we are working hard to organize a wonderful Pesach experience for everyone in our household, educational values should be uppermost in our minds.  The house must be cleansed of chametz, the marvelous Pesach meals must be prepared, but most importantly we must plan out strategies for passing on our most cherished values to our children.

Chag kasher v'sameach, Happy Pesach!


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