When Your Child Asks You

When Your Child Asks You*

Reading: Exodus 13:1-16

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 2 Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, [both] of man and of beast: it [is] mine. 3 And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this [place]: there shall no leavened bread be eaten. 4 This day came ye out in the month Abib. 5 And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee, a land flowing with milk and honey, that thou shalt keep this service in this month. 6 Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, and in the seventh day [shall be] a feast to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with thee, neither shall there be leaven seen with thee in all thy quarters. 8 And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, [This is done] because of that [which] the LORD did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. 9 And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the LORD'S law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt. 10 Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year. 11 And it shall be when the LORD shall bring thee into the land of the Canaanites, as he sware unto thee and to thy fathers, and shall give it thee, 12 That thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the males [shall be] the LORD'S. 13 And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. 14 And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What [is] this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage: 15 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem. 16 And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.
During the current season, Jews throughout the world are reading the book of Exodus, recalling the saga of our ancestors' liberation from enslavement in ancient Egypt. The centrality of that event in the shaping of the Jewish religious consciousness can hardly be exaggerated. At virtually every turn in our religious lives we confront reminders of the Exodus--These are not restricted to the obvious historical commemorations like the Passover, but are extended--to take some random examples--to the command to take a weekly Sabbath from our labours and the moral obligation to show compassion and fairness to the strangers among us.

Indeed, the oppression of Egypt and the deliverance from it are not depicted in the Bible as obstacles to Israel's historical mission, but as integral to it.

Already in Genesis 15, when the Almighty established a covenant with Abraham, the patriarch was informed that his yet-to-be-born progeny would be enslaved in a strange land. One wonders initially how Abraham took this distressing news, and why God considered it so essential to include this piece of news on an occasion that was supposed to be joyous and encouraging.

Jewish tradition over the generations has understood that the consciousness of being a liberated people is a crucial part of our spiritual identity. It would be nice if the ideal of freedom could be proclaimed on a theoretical level. The Bible however has too realistic an understanding of human character to believe that such a situation would lead to more than platitudes devoid of content.

The truth is that nobody can meaningfully understand the value of freedom unless they have personally experienced slavery. From God's perspective, the people of Israel would not have been the same people had they not suffered the oppressions of Egypt.

The Jewish sages formulated the ideal in an ambitious programme: "In each generation, people must regard themselves as if they personally had participated in the exodus from Egypt."

Now this might work well for those generations that actually felt upon their flesh the oppression--and we are all aware that the passion for freedom breathes most strongly among those individuals who have personal experiences of oppression, whether in times of old or in our own times. (Some Jewish communal leaders find themselves stifling an unutterable wish for further historical trials that might help forge a weakening religious identity--but this is clearly not something we can realistically wish upon our children). How, therefore, can a historical episode that occurred four thousand years ago continue to shape the spiritual character of those of us who know it only as a story?

This problem has been of considerable concern to Jewish tradition. In fact, in their meticulous study of the Bible texts, our teachers realised that the question of transmitting the religious experience of liberation was a central worry even at the time of the original events. On no less than four occasions does the Torah speak of how the lessons of the Exodus are to be taught to children who have grown up in lands of Milk and Honey, for whom the story threatens to be nothing more than a far-off legend.

In keeping with a principal of rabbinic interpretation that God (unlike, say, University professors), does not waste holy words by repeating things needlessly, our sages came to realise that the Torah was not guilty of redundancy in its four-fold return to the question. Underlying the multiple exhortations to teach the message of the Exodus is a truth familiar to all parents and educators: that effective instruction must be tailored to the needs and abilities of the particular student who sits before us. The teaching will vary in accordance with the student's personality.

Thus, in a passage that still occupies an honoured place in the traditional Passover meal liturgy, the sages observe that "the Torah addressed four different types of child."

In Deuteronomy 6:20 it states "When thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying; What mean the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord hath commanded you?"

The verse seems to presuppose an extensive familiarity with the tradition, it serves as the model for a "wise" child with a demonstrated knowledge of and interest in the tradition. The teacher's role here is the simplest and most immediately satisfying. Reinforce the child's quest for truth and meaning, and help channel the interest into fruitful directions.

Exodus 12:26 presents a different version of the encounter: "And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you: What mean ye by this service..."

The Jewish sages imagined the impudent child placing an emphasis on the last words "What mean ye"--implying that he has excluded himself from the tradition. In the vocabulary of the Passover liturgy, such a child is "wicked." One who can no longer identify with the values of the group will be unable to transmit those values, rendering futile the entire purpose of the Exodus experience. The Rabbis insist that the challenge cannot be ignored. The parents must react forcefully showing their displeasure, the moral dangers that emerge from such an attitude.

Exodus 13:14 refers to a simple child: "And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: What is this?" This child has an intuitive feeling that there is something to learn, but does not have the cognitive sophistication to formulate a meaningful question, let alone search for a relevant answer. When faced with such children, the sages say, we must take them by the hand and lead them step by step until they realised their full potential.

Exodus 13:8 says "And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying..." This is applied to the child who is not even aware that there are questions to be asked.In such case, say the Rabbis, it is up to the parent or teacher to take the initiative and introduce the subject. You cannot always wait for the child to raise the topic.

The above lessons can of course be transferred to other areas of education and family life. An additional portion of Jewish educational lore from which we can profit is that teaching and learning are not restricted to words and ideas. As a medieval Hebrew author attempted to epitomise the underlying theory behind Jewish religious practice: "The mind follows after the body." Actions, good habits, tangible symbolic rituals and ethical examples provide a more effective means for handing down religious traditions than the mere recitation of texts and opinions. It is this philosophy that governs the Passover festival meal, whose participants--in the way they sit and the foods they eat as much as in the words they proclaim--attempt the paradoxical task of reliving at once the experiences of slavery and liberations.

The present lection passage includes several examples of such "lived" teachings:

Firstborn children must be symbolically redeemed from God in appreciation of the fact that they were spared from the horrible consequences of the final Egyptian plague.

Jews are commanded to wear "tefillin"--boxes containing Biblical texts recalling the Exodus and other key beliefs--on our heads and arms, as a physical representation of the commitment to devote thought and action to God's way.

The hope is that by continually reliving the historical experience of our people, there will be forged a strong chain of continuity.

It is no accident that the Prophetic reading on the Sabbath before Passover includes Malachi`s vision of an ideal future in which the prophet Elijah will return to "turn the heart of the parents to the children and the heart of the children to their parents." Only through such a reconciliation can the ideal of freedom maintain its relevance for future generations.


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*Guest sermon delivered at South Calgary Inter-Mennonite Church, Calgary, January 19 1997