“The Passover Seder–Focus on the Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

As is the practice on all Shabbatot that coincide with Jewish holidays, the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is replaced with the specially selected Torah portion concerning the upcoming holiday of Pesach. Consequently, my talk this week focus on the festival of Passover.

The Passover “Seder,” which literally means “order,” is certainly an “orderly” event, but it surely has some very unusual customs: We cover the matzot, uncover the matzot; we put the seder plate on the table, then we remove it; we dip parsley, greens or some other vegetable into salt water and we dip marror (bitter herb) in charoset (a mixture of wine, apples, cinnamon, etc); we hide the afikomen, encouraging our children to steal it, and then reward them for returning it. We also read about the four children; Mah Nishtana is sung by the youngest child; we open the door for Elijah the Prophet; we sing all sorts of fun songs that are all quite child-oriented. Clearly the Passover Seder, with all of its massive intellectual value, is surely an evening that places unusual emphasis on children.

What is the origin of this focus? Let us review the Passover story itself! Even before the enslavement of the Jews began, Pharaoh instructed the midwives, Shifra and Pua, to kill all the newborn Jewish male babies. According to tradition, these midwives were actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister. They claimed that they were unable to fulfill Pharaoh’s order because the Jewish women were healthy, they took all sorts of birthing classes, Lamaze, and natural child birth instructions. Therefore, even before the midwives arrived, the Jewish babies were born, too late for them to be killed.

When that attempt to harm the Jews didn’t work, Pharaoh’s ensuing decree was even more radical. He commanded that any male child born was to be thrown into the river. In Exodus 1:22, Pharaoh declares “Kol ha’ben ha’yee’lod ha’y’orah tash’lee’chu’hu,” which literally means, any male child, whether Egyptian or not, should be cast into the river. Pharaoh’s words are almost a prognostication of what future anti-Semitism would be. Pharaoh’s rabid hatred of the Jewish people was so out of proportion, that he was prepared to have all the Egyptian male children cast into the Nile, as long as he could make certain that the Jewish male children were drowned as well. Hitler did the same when he diverted the trains to transport Jews to the extermination camps, instead of sending them to fight the war on the front, where they were desperately needed.

The Midrash further develops Pharaoh’s disproportionate hatred of Jewish children by declaring that Pharaoh was stricken with leprosy and in order to heal himself, he bathed in the blood of Jewish children. A complementary Midrash says that if the Jewish slaves failed to produce the declared quota of bricks, Jewish children were plastered into the walls, to make up for the shortcoming. According to the Midrash, the net result of all this hatred directed towards Jewish children, was that Jewish men, led by Amram, Moses’ father, felt that they could no longer continue to bring Jewish children into the world. Amram, who was the leader of the Jewish people at the time, separated from his wife, Yocheved, and all of the Jewish men followed suit. According to tradition, Miriam, who was then six years old, said to Amram, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed that the male children not live. You are decreeing that both male and female children never be born. Pharaoh is a wicked man, his decree will not be fulfilled, but you are a righteous person; your decree will be fulfilled. And not only that, but Pharaoh’s decree is that the children shouldn’t live in this world, you are decreeing that the children shouldn’t have a life in this world and the world to come!”

When Amram heard this, he regretted his decision and told Miriam that she should inform the Sanhedrin, the court of Jewish law, that he changed his mind and would reunite with his wife. Miriam said, “The mouth that prohibited should be the mouth that permits.” Amram went to the court of Jewish law and publicly proclaimed his reunion with his wife.

Even in Exodus 10:10, when Pharaoh eventually allows the Jewish people to worship for three days, the people may only do so without their children.

We see that Pharaoh’s focus on the children was really an attempt to undue Jewish continuity. He knew that without little Jews, there would be no future for the Jewish people. That is why it is so crucial that at our Passover seder, we make sure that our children are the central focus and fully involved. In fact, not only involved, they should be trained to lead the seder so that everyone appreciates how important a role they play in the Passover story.

On Passover night, every Jew is child, and every Jew is a parent. Every Jew is a student, and every Jew is a teacher. We actually switch roles, back and forth, all this, in order to nurture the next generation.

Our Torah, in the first paragraph of the Shema prayer, clearly states (Deut. 6:8) “V’shee’nantam l’va’neh’cha”–parents have a direct responsibility to educate their children. You want to send your children to school? Fine. You want to get them extra tutoring? Fine. But the fundamental obligation is clearly upon the parent, not a substitute, to serve as the model for the child. It is also crucial that the model be a positive model, that’s why the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:5), speaks of V’a’hav’ta et Hashem E’l-okecha, –that love of G-d can really only be communicated in a loving household–in a household where G-d is loved. Only after that does the second paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 11:13-21), speak of accountability and punishments. But if we underscore only accountability and punishments, then our children will be left with only negative feelings about G-d, and we will have to face the consequences. It’s as the Psalmist says (100:2), “Iv’du et Hashem b’simcha,” Worship G-d through happiness!

There is no more appropriate time or place for happiness, full unrestrained happiness, than the Passover seder. May you and your loved ones be favored with a Chag Kasher V’Sameach, a kosher and joyous Passover, and may your happiness overflow like the waters of the Red Sea!

May You Be Blessed.