D’var Torah: Arnold Zar-Kessler (Pesach)

This coming Friday night, every Jewish household will become a showcase for the special pedagogy that has enabled our people to persist and flourish.  The Seder itself reflects a central understanding of our people’s survival and triumph – that the home is the greatest Jewish educational institution, and places like Day Schools are but supports for this sacred work.

And the story we have to tell, the lessons we have to share are every bit worthy of this task.  While parents (and grandparents) might be busying themselves this week assembling ‘learning aids’, games and tzchochkes to keep the youngsters around the table engaged, it’s worth remembering what lies at the core of what we have to teach at our Sederim.  To that end, I’d like to suggest two important ideas – possibly directions – to keep in mind as we again take on the sacred roles of our children’s’ primary religious and moral teachers and guides.

First, this is more a night about answers than questions, and we adults should operate from a sense of conviction, as well as we can.  There is a tendency in contemporary parlance to think of Judaism as fundamentally a tradition of questions.   To some degree, this is appropriate, Leon Wieseltier notes, “…for the night of the Four Questions; but those questions, remember, are for the children to ask. The adults are supposed to be less interrogative than instructive—to be unembarrassed by the claim that they are in possession of answers.”

In his 2012 article in the Jewish Review of Books, he goes on to say that “….Contrary to its contemporary reputation, the Haggadah is more about the prestige of answers than the prestige of questions. There is nothing tentative about its account of God, history, and freedom. The tradition that it describes does not shrink from certainties. It is an argumentative tradition, to be sure, but not because certainty is impossible or illegitimate…. The grandeur of the Seder is owed not least to the intellectual confidence of its text. “

For many of us, that level of confidence may require some work in our preparation, and we may make some accommodations to our own ambivalences and antipathies, but it’s worth remembering that children really do look to adults to see what it is they care about, what matters to them and what they feel is important, indeed sacred.  In the years to come, they will remember the joy, the community, and the family of our Sederim. But in their kishkes, they will remember –  above all – what we stood for.

Speaking of that (and my second point),  I am reminded of some remarkable text from Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg, in his timeless book, The Jewish Way.  He gives an overview of the ‘why’ of Passover’ for our times, and each year when I read it, it strikes me anew.  Maybe it will do likewise for you:

“The overwhelming majority of earth’s human beings have always lived in poverty and under oppression, their lives punctuated by sickness and suffering,  …Statistically speaking, human life is of little value.  The downtrodden and the poor accept their fate as destined;  the powerful and successful accept their good fortune as they’re due.  Power, rather than justice, seems to rule.

Jewish religion affirms otherwise.  Judaism insists that history.. will eventually be perfected.

How do we know this?  From an actual event in history – the Exodus…. The freeing of the slaves testified that human beings are meant to be free.  History will not be finished until all are free.  The Exodus shows that God is independent of human control.  Once this is understood by tyrants and their victims then all human power is made relative.

The Exodus further proves that God is concerned.  No, the Exodus did not destroy evil in the world.  What it did was set up an alternate conception of life;  it re-establishes the dream of perfection.”

It is from this framework of Rabbi Greenberg, that we can deliver a message of not only understanding the challenges we confront in our world, and still make the case for a distinctly Jewish purpose in helping heal the fissures that divide us.  As such, it provides every participant in the Seder with a place for hope, which, after all, is perhaps the greatest gift we adults can offer our children.

May you and your loved ones be blessed with a happy – and Kosher – Pesach.

Arnold Zar-Kessler, Executive Director Inspiring Educators, Former Schechter Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent

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