In his 2015, 2018, and 2020 Divrei Torah on Parashat Bo, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l highlighted the uniquely Jewish nature of the Exodus story. The Jewish People had been in exile for between 210-430 years, toiling in slavery for much of that time. Suddenly, their prospects turn with Hashem unleashing nine plagues upon Egypt, and Moses warning of the final plague. At this point, all but Pharaoh realize that it is time to “send out the men that they may serve Hashem, their G!d! Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” (Exodus 10:7) Moses was known as “very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the people.” (Exodus 11:3) When he gathers the Jewish People to give one last speech before they leave Egypt, Moses does not speak about freedom, or leaving for a Land flowing with milk and honey, or about nursing grievances against the Egyptians. Instead, he looks to the future, speaking to the necessity of educating our children, a central theme of Judaism and for Jewish continuity.
One of the highlights of our family Seders has always been the story of the Four Children. The text for three of the four children come from the speeches that Moses delivers immediately before and after the Exodus in Parashat Bo: “And it shall be that when your [wicked] children say to you ‘What is this service to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is a Pesach feast-offering to Hashem, Who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when Hashem smote the Egyptians, but Hashem saved our households.’” (Exodus 12:26-27) “And you shall tell your child [who doesn’t know how to ask] on that day, saying, ‘It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8) “And it shall be when your [simple] child will ask you at some future time, ‘What is this?’ You shall say to him, ‘With a strong hand, Hashem removed us from Egypt from the house of bondage.’” (Exodus 13:14) Families have recounted these instructions around the Seder table for generations, a sign of the importance of children asking questions, being answered, and learning to tell their people’s story.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple teaches that Judaism’s focus on the importance of educating our children goes all the way back to Abraham. The Torah teaches that Abraham earned Hashem’s love and was chosen to be the first monotheist and father to many nations “because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem.” (Genesis 18:19) The Shema emphasizes this, as well: “You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise.” (Deuteronomy 4:7) Where other societies might establish a courthouse, pub, or house of worship when they first establish a new outpost, Jews have always started by establishing a house of study. (Rashi on Genesis 46:28, Bereishit Rabba 95:3)
Without such a strong emphasis on childhood education, it is unlikely that the Jewish People could have survived almost 2,000 years in Diaspora, often as a very small minority of the population. As Rodger Kamenetz recounts in his book The Jew in the Lotus, documenting the 1990 visit with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala by a group of multi-denominational Rabbis, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l advised the Buddhist leaders to choreograph their own version of the Pesach Seder to prepare their children for life in Diaspora. Without intergenerational ritual surrounding education and storytelling, he saw assimilation as all but guaranteed.
May the teachers, staff, and parents at Schechter (and throughout the Jewish world) continue in this holy task of re-telling our story and preparing the next generation of Jewish leaders.
Anna and Matya Schachter, Schechter parents