The Calgary Herald

Children's Questions at Heart of Passover[1]

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

published by

CreateSpace

by Eliezer Segal

At first glance, it seems like a trivial, silly custom. A broken piece of matzah, (the unleavened bread that is the staple dietary item of the Jewish Passover) is set aside and hidden. In some families, the parents are the ones who conceal the matzah, and the children are responsible for finding it; in others, the youngsters purloin it and later ransom it in exchange for gifts.

The practice of matzah-snatching is recorded in ancient Jewish documents, where it is given a rationale that is remarkable in its simplicity: "To keep the children from falling asleep."

The concern with involving the children actively in the Passover celebration is reinforced in several of its customs. Ultimately, it is the children who define special character of Passover within the spectrum of Jewish values and observances.

If it were merely a historical commemoration of the liberation of the ancient Hebrews, then it would be difficult to justify the institution of Passover as an annual festival. After all, the motifs of slavery and liberation permeate every aspect of the Jewish experience. The Torah invokes that memory in diverse contexts, such as when commanding compassionate treatment of strangers or the observance of a weekly day of rest.

Verbal mentions of the Egyptian exodus are incorporated into the standard prayers that are repeated each day.

If these memories accompany the Jew through every moment and situation, what need is there for an additional holiday devoted to the same familiar theme?

Clearly, what is unique to Passover is its association with the precept set down in Exodus 13:8: "And you shall tell your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'"

As the children are exposed to the numerous profound and exotic customs of the holiday, their curiosity is expected to provoke them to inquire about their meanings.

We may therefore appreciate how important it is that the telling of the Exodus story must be initiated with youngest person present asking "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

Jewish tradition assumes that the message of Passover cannot be transmitted in a uniform version. Rather, every child must be addressed in his or her unique individuality. There are self-motivated and gifted children for whom a slight nudge of parental guidance is enough to set them in the proper direction of independent learning and appreciation.

However, other children challenge the tradition with a rebellious hostility, requiring a forceful or confrontational response.

And then there are those children who do not even realize that there are questions to be asked. Jewish tradition insists that in such cases, the parent or educator must initiate the conversation, so that the children will be able to partake in the historical memory of their people.

When it comes to the instilling of religious values, it is not enough to recite texts and facts mechanically. The Passover ritual includes tangible reenactment of the story, through the use of symbolic foods, actions and other means that allow the participants to experience the degradations of slavery and the exhilaration of freedom. It is assumed throughout that only those who have experienced oppression can truly appreciate the value of liberty. This is a message that bears repeating in our own country, as many of us no longer appreciate how precious freedom is.

Passover holds some universal lessons for the numerous cultural and religious communities that contribute to the tapestry of our society. The beauty and wisdom of these cultures will not survive into the next generation without an intense commitment from their present custodians. Without this determination, they will continue to be blended into the shallow globalized mush that is daily overtaking us.

The successful transmission of our memories and values to the next generation demands that we engage the spirits and minds of the next generation.

As a society, we will be unforgivably impoverished if we fail to keep our children from falling asleep at the table.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

published by

CreateSpace
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

 

[1]