“Opening Their Hearts so They Can Hear”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the ten plagues come to a dramatic conclusion with the Death of all Egyptian First-born. Pharaoh, in panic, urges the Jewish people to leave his land, and they begin their historic exodus from Egypt. In this parasha, as well, we are taught the rules and regulations concerning the observance of the first Passover.

As many of you know, the Passover seder is specifically designed to arouse the curiosity of the children, and to involve them as much as possible in the experience of the exodus. Consequently, the rituals of the seder are much different from the standard Shabbat rituals. The seder plate is at times covered, uncovered, removed from the table and returned to the table. The “Mah nishtanah,” the afikoman (the hidden matzah), the four cups of wine, washing the hands before eating the vegetable–all these odd elements are included in the seder in order to arouse and maintain the children’s interest. Likewise, in order to keep the focus on the children, the reading of the “Four Sons” is included in the Hagaddah which speaks of the wise son, the prodigal son, the simple son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask.

It is in parashat Bo that we find the actual verses that are the source for the Hagaddah’s statements regarding three of the four sons: the prodigal son, the simple son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask.

It is significant to note that, with the exception of the prodigal son, all the responses that are offered to the questioning children in the Passover Hagaddah, faithfully follow the text that are found in applicable biblical verses.

The statement regarding the “Rashah” that is found in the Hagaddah reads as follows: “Rashah, mah hoo oh’mer?” What does the prodigal son say? What is this ritual of yours? “Yours” he emphasizes, but not “his.” To this question the author of the Hagaddah responds: Because he [the prodigal son] excluded himself from the community and denied the principle of acknowledging G-d, so should you dull the sharpness of his sarcasm and reply to him: “This is because of what G-d did for me, when I went out of Egypt.” He did it for “me” and not for “him.” Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed!

The Hagaddah’s response to this questioning child seems to be rather stern and severe. Make his teeth stand on edge! Tell him that had he been there he wouldn’t have been redeemed! But that’s not at all what the Torah says! If we check the actual text in parashat Bo it states (Exodus 12:26): “V’hah’yah kee yom’roo ah’lay’chem b’nay’chem: Mah hah’ah’voh’dah hah’zot lah’chem?” And it shall come to pass, when your children say to you: What is this ritual of yours? The Torah doesn’t at all indicate here that the child is prodigal, wicked or recalcitrant. In fact the Torah says, “When your children say to you.” The truth is that every thinking Jewish child will at one point say to his parents, teachers or friends: “Why do I need to be Jewish? Why do we need to keep kosher? Why do we have to observe the Shabbat? Why do I have to wear a yarmulka and put on tefillin?” The verse doesn’t say if, it says when! Every thinking Jew has to face these questions: Why am I a Jew, and what do these religious rituals mean to me?!

The response that the Torah itself offers to this questioning Jew is entirely different from the response that we find in the Hagaddah. Exodus 12:27: “Vah’ah’mar’tem zeh’vach peh’sach hoo la’Hashem.” The Torah says, tell those questioning young people that this is a “celebratory Passover meal for G-d,” because G-d passed over the houses of the Jews in Egypt when He struck them with the plaques and He saved us.

What kind of answer is this for the searching Jewish child who has religious issues?

I believe that the Torah is subtly telling us that there is a fundamental educational principle of which everyone needs to be aware, and that is the issue of “readiness.” Answers can not be forced down a student’s throat, particularly when they are not capable of hearing, and not in the “listening mode.” It is the teachers’ and parents’ responsibility to motivate the questioning person to listen. How is this done? “Vah’ah’mar’tem zeh’vach Pesach,” the Torah advises us to invite the questioner to our Passover seder, to our “celebratory meal.” Without any preconditions invite the disinterested child to your home. Sing, dance and celebrate with him/her, give him/her four cups of wine-–that will loosen them up! Avoid scripted lines or threats. Fill his/her stomach with a good meal and his/her heart and soul with a meaningful experience. The questioning child will then sense the abundant love and become less defensive. After a number of such positive experiences, the child will then be able to hear your message. Only then can the philosophical answers begin. “Celebrate with me, drink a little with me, have some charoses, enjoy the meal, sing Chad Gadya with me”–those elements are far more important, at least initially, than any discourse on Maimonides, Kant, and the 48 proofs of G-d’s existence!

The message that the Torah is conveying to us in parashat Bo is the very message that’s urgently needed to be heard in the broader Jewish community today. With the meltdown of Jewish life in America due to assimilation and alienation, we are facing a most serious existential threat. There is no point in bemoaning our fate, screaming, or threatening. What we need to do urgently is to give our young people positive, joyous, Jewish experiences, to open their hearts, so that their ears may hear. That is the profound message of parashat Bo. Let us hope that we hear it ourselves, and begin to urgently convey to others!

May you be blessed.