Our lives have meaning
The youngster, shown here, munching his matzah, is clearly posing for the camera at a seder table set for many guests.
It appears he couldn’t wait to sate his hunger, for he has already peeled an egg and nearly tipped over the bowl of salt water.
His youthfulness may grant him an exemption from patience, but it does not grant him exemption from the ceremony that is about to unfold around the elaborately and traditionally set table. Indeed his youthfulness guarantees him a major role in the ritual.
The whole point of the seder is to tell the story of our Exodus from Egyptian slavery some 3-1/2 millennia ago. Everyone at the table becomes a student of our history. But it is the children at whom we aim the evening’s key lessons. This was always the intention for the uniquely marvellous evening we call layl seder Pesach. And the Haggadah is the text from which we teach those precious lessons. As Rabbi Marc Angel of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals in New York has noted, “The Haggadah provides a progressive framework of questions and answers, of engaging each person according to his/her ability and interest. It is an ancient document that can and should be made relevant to the most modern of moderns.”
The Haggadah is the prototypical instrument of teaching. Pesach is the prototypical occasion for teaching.
What we teach on Pesach, and indeed what we must teach day in and day out, is that our lives have meaning. Our history has meaning.
This is the central theme of the Jewish People’s story.
“Jews were the first to make the momentous claim that history has meaning. It is not merely a sequence of disconnected events, but the long story of humanity’s response to, or rebellion against, the voice of God as it echoes in the conscience of mankind,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes.
The Exodus from Egypt is the pivotal moment of collective Jewish history. And though we recount that moment countless times in our daily prayers, it is around the seder table that we do so as a community of family and friends.
The importance of doing so cannot be overstated. The American scholar Jacob Neusner has elegantly explained why. “Civilization hangs suspended from generation to generation by the gossamer strand of memory. If only one cohort of mothers and fathers fails to convey to its children what it has learned from its parents, then the great chain of learning and wisdom snaps.”
It is fitting, therefore, during this prototypical occasion for teaching, that we embed Neusner’s statement deep in our hearts.
We are – all of us – the guardians of the great chain of the learning and the wisdom that we call Judaism. We dare not let the chain snap. We dare not let it fall from our hands.
And yet the evidence is overwhelming that so many of the links of the chain are not holding. There is a palpably loosening sense of community among younger Jews here and abroad that bodes ill for the civilization that has been our treasure, our heritage and our future.
The surest way to strengthen the gossamers of our collective memory, to protect that great chain is by building a comprehensive, communal infrastructure of education. We do not have that. We have a fine system for some, a partial system for a few and no system for too many.
Our community must re-examine, rethink and revise the current educational infrastructure. It is no longer adequate to the urgent needs of our time. The utter unaffordability of a day-school education for the vast majority of families is only one of many pressing education issues. But it’s not the only one.
The fraying of the chain should stab at the collective conscience of our community. That it does not is unpardonable.
We must not be the cohort of mothers and fathers that fails its children. Indeed, why can we not be the cohort that rises above the defeatist resignation that says nothing more, nothing different, can be done?
Perhaps it was for this reason we were born at this time? To show it can be done. To build an infrastructure of education for everyone engaging each person according to his/her ability. To secure the chain in our community for all time.