Pesach Message 5784/2024

Originally shared with the SJCS community in April 2024 to mark Pesach 5784


Questions & Answers


Dear SJCS Community,

The upcoming holiday of Pesach/פסח (Passover) brings us rich opportunities to immerse ourselves at home in core tenets of SJCS’s Educational Philosophy, notably that, as a learning community, we prize:

  • the inherent value of study for its own sake
  • the pursuit of understanding, purpose, and self-awareness, along with knowledge
  • the power of questions
  • the sacred nature of considering different perspectives and multiple layers of meaning

The traditional Haggadah/הגדה celebrates questions along with questioning itself. One exception may come with the castigation of the children deemed “wicked” among the “Four [Types of] Children.” (The notion of “Four Children” itself emerges from the presentation, in the Torah four different times, of Q&A on the celebration of Pesach. These verses serve as the basis of the discussion of the “Four [Types of] Children” presented in the Haggadah, even if they get mixed up a bit.)

To consider how the “wicked” children earn this opprobrium, let us look first at the passage in the Haggadah:

 “Rasha, Ma Hu Omer? ‘Ma HaAvodah HaZot Lachem?’ Lachem V’Lo Lo. U’L’fi She’Hotzi Et Atzmo Min HaKlal, Kafar B;Ikar. V’Af Atah Hak’heh Et Shinav V’Emor Lo: ‘B;Avur Zeh Asah Adonai Li B’Tzayti MiMitzrayim.’ Li V’Lo Lo. Eelu Hayah Sham, Lo Haya Neeg’al”

רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם. לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: "בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם". לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל

(“The ‘wicked’ children, what do they say? ‘What is this service to you?’ ‘To you,’ they say, not to them. When they set themselves apart from the community, they deny the very core of our beliefs. And you must set their teeth on edge and tell them, “Because of this the Adonai acted for me when I came out of Egypt.” “For me,” and not for them; had they been there they would not have been redeemed.”)

The source of condemnation presented in the Haggadah text – hinging on the choice of pronoun in the question – presents some problems, notably because the Q&A presented with the children deemed “wise” also features a second person pronoun. A topic for another day!

At this time, I call our attention to a different part of speech: the verb. The reference point from which the discussion of “wicked” children spawns comes in Shmot/שמות (Exodus), Chapter 12, verse 26:

“V’haya Ki Yomru Aleychem B’neichm, Mah HaAvodah HaZot Lachem.”

 “וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לכֶֽם׃”

(“And when your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’”)

All of the other passages of Q&A about Pesach presented in the Torah feature forms of the verb LiShol/לשאל (to ask), while this one uses L’Omar/לאמר (to say). Perhaps this distinction contributes significantly to the concerns that generate a sharp response in the Haggadah. The wicked children are not asking a question at all; they are making a statement, and this takes them out of the give-and-take.

Dispensing with the curiosity and foundations of respect that lead us to ask rather than to tell tends not to serve the purpose of pursuing wisdom.

And what of the children deemed “wise”? With them, too: looking at the source texts in their original version – in the Torah, rather than in the Haggadah – can offer some insights. The Torah provides a different response to the question presented in the Haggadah.

In the Haggadah, the section goes as follows. [Note the use of the second person pronoun “you” in this question as well.]

“Chacham, Mah Hu Omer? ‘Mah HaEydot V’HaChukim V’HaMishpatim Asher Tzivah Adonai Eloheinu Etchem?’ V’Af Atah Ehmor Lo K’Hilchot HaPesach: ‘Ein Maftirim Achar HaPesach Afikoman.’”

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן

(“The ‘wise’ children, what do they say? ‘What are the testimonies, the statutes and laws, that Adonai our God commanded you?’ And you must tell them the laws of Pesacḥ [until] ‘After eating the Pesacḥ offering, one does not eat anything more.”)

We have a lot to consider here, both in the question of why the Rabbis distinguished between two different uses of “you” and extending to the obscure answer provided in the Haggadah. Other topics for another time!

At this time, rather than digging into that answer, let us look at the response to the question presented in the Torah. (Note here, in contrast to the exchange discussed above, that the verb used involves “asking” rather than “stating.”) These verses come from the book of Dvarim/דברים (Deuteronomy), chapter 6, verses 20 and 21.

“Ki Yishalcha Bincha Machar Leymor, ‘Mah HaEydot V’HaChukim V’HaMishpatim Asher Tzivah Adonai Eloheinu Etchem?’ V’Amarta L’Vincha, ‘Avadim Hayinu L’Faro B’Mitzrayim, V’Yotzi’enu Adonai MiMitzrayim B’Yad Chazakah.”

כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם׃ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֛ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵ֧נוּ יְהוָ֛ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה׃

(“When, in a time to come, your children ask you, ‘What do the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon you mean?’ you shall say to your children, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and Adonai freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.”)

Even as the children posing this seemingly erudite question – differentiating between decrees and laws and rules – get held up as “wise” in the Haggadah, the answer provided in the original Torah text sidesteps that question entirely. It sets aside the seeming sophistication of the question, considers no distinctions between “decrees” and “laws” and “rules,” and instead moves directly to the spirit of the matter, rather than to its finicky fine points. We were slaves; the higher power redeemed us. This response – or maybe, more properly, we should consider it this re-direct – offers a suggestion to be wary of self-reverential questions that go too far perhaps in seeking attention more than wisdom, as if the parent in the Torah is saying to the children, “Hey, wise(acres) do not lose the forest for the trees; do not sacrifice the spirit of the holiday for undue fixation on its particulars.”

As I continue to relish the great good fortune I have in spending my days with learners of all ages, I find myself less inclined to treat the discussion of the “Four [Types of] Children” as an exercise in making sharp distinctions and more as an opportunity to celebrate “different perspectives and multiple layers of meaning” – different learners and different points along the journey to wisdom and understanding.

I wish all of us respite, good family time, robust give-and-take, and, above all, a flourishing of the core blessing celebrated by the upcoming holiday: freedom and redemption from all the narrowness that confines, distracts, and misleads us.

(The Hebrew name for Egypt –Mitzrayim/מצרים – relies on roots that convey “narrowness,” opening all kinds of interpretive possibilities as we consider the meaning of the redemption whose story we tell, by tradition, over and over. Another topic for another day!)

Chag Sameach/חג שמח (Happy Holiday!)