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A Passover meditation: Who our children really are

So much is wrapped up in the timeless, iconic holiday of Pesach. With its universal themes of slavery, liberation and redemption, and a particularly detailed set of obligations, laws and customs, there is a depth and breadth to the traditions and teachings that we are obligated to pass on to the next generation, our children.

Choosing what to focus on, and which teachings and traditions to transmit is one of the reasons behind the proliferation of various types of haggadot. There are more than 1,000 different types of haggadot that have been published over the years, each unique in its own way. These haggadot vary by country of origin, denominational orientation, hashkafic outlook, political and social focus, and historical emphasis; each generation retells the Pesach story and shares its own teachings in its own multitude of ways, giving full expression to “ve’higadeta le’vincha" — “And you shall tell your children,” (Shmot 13:8).

Being part of such a diverse Jewish community here in Montreal, and connected more broadly to family and friends in Israel and across the Jewish world, means that my family, like many others, has over the years accumulated quite the eclectic haggadah collection.

In each of these haggadot, the transmission of tradition is not taken lightly and is given vivid expression in the story of the Four Children. The archetypal four children, each built and wired differently, both in outlook and ability, and our ongoing duty as parents (and educators) to find the right words and teachings for each of them, in the hopes that they will learn, understand and appreciate what is being taught, and actually (hopefully) want to not just show up again at next years seder, but consciously continue on their own meaningful Jewish journeys. With this need to transmit and pass on the Passover story, there is an almost existential pressure to get it right.

In our haggadah collection at home, there is a stark contrast contained in two radically different haggadot, about the Four Children, specifically about the rasha רשע child, the proverbial wicked child. I share this particular contrast every year at the Seder table because it so powerfully resonates with me as a father and as a Jewish educator.

The first teaching of the wicked child is found in a very litvishe charedi haggadah. It’s a very fire and brimstone, black and white understanding of who this child in the family is. This particular haggadah devotes a full nine pages (!) of commentary to this issue, with words like immorality, heresy, no compromise and silencing evil literally leaping off the pages. This child is toxic and irredeemable and has no place in the family. To save the other three, this one has to go. It’s awful and it’s absolute.

The second teaching is found in a more eclectic chassidic haggadah, and it’s so beautiful. It’s based on a Belzer chassidic teaching. The haggadah says: “when you talk to the wicked child, הקהה את שניו, ha’keh et shinav, blunt his teeth.” This child, who is on the outs with his family, is actually at the seder, when he or she didn’t have to come at all. The word רשע, “wicked” is made up of three letters. The outside, external letters are ר and ע, which make the word רע, “bad”, but the inside letter, the core is shin, ש. The three lines that make up the shin, in a Torah scroll, are written with a crown on one of them:

The three lines that make up the shin symbolize Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and the crown symbolizes keter malchut, the crown of God’s kingship.

We know that this child is struggling, that the רע, the external is not always so good. To this child, we are instructed to הקהה את שניו, ha’keh et shinav, blunt their shin / teeth. We are told that in order to reach this child, knock their shin loose, remind them of who they are at their core - they are linked to their ancestors, and they are of Jewish nobility; they are kings and queens, and they are here for a powerful, holy purpose. Believe in your children, even if they are a bit off and not always where we want them to be. After all, aren’t we all?

The key learning from all this — what we teach our children is just as important as how we teach them.

This is especially true this Pesach, the second year in a row of its kind, where for the majority of Jewish communities around the world, there will be no guests or extended family expected at the seder table. The seder is typically something that needs to be experienced not with friends and family alone, but with others in the community who are kol dichfin, who are “hungry”, both literally and figuratively, for a warm home-cooked meal, for the messages and teachings of the Pesach experience in particular and of Judaism in general, and who require the stability and love of family and community to draw them in.

Once again, there will be no buffer guests or relatives. What we share, and how we share it, won’t be filtered through polite company, or refracted through multiple conversations.

All that external focus will be turned inwards, on ourselves and our children around the seder table. And as the last year has taught us, that can be inordinately, paradoxically, challenging.

So this year, think of the teaching of the shin, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and open them to see, really see the miracles sitting around your seder table, and the quiet, deep nobility contained in each of your children, all built differently, all beautiful in their own way.

This year, when we read the hagaddah and tell our stories, let's remember to do so with lots of joy, lots of simchah and remind ourselves of who we are at our core - God's children, and the ayniklech of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah.

Abba Brodt is Director of Impact Partnerships and Allocations at Federation CJA, and a former Head of School in Montreal and Vancouver.

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