We tell our children
It is not by accident that on seder night the narration of the story of the exodus from Egypt begins with our children. After the preliminary formal invocations of blessings, we commence the retelling of our forebears’ harrowing yet epochal departure from the land of slavery in response to the Four Questions asked by one of the youngsters at the table.
Nor is it coincidental that the seder night festivity ends with the playful and often rousing singing of songs that are clearly written in the form of children’s lyrics.
In his commentary on the Haggadah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emphasizes this very point. “Just as we began the seder with the questions of a child, so we conclude it with a nursery rhyme, reminding ourselves that what sustains a faith is not strength or power, but its ability to inspire successive generations of children to add their voices to our people’s song.”
Children ask questions. Parents and grandparents answer. That is the way of the seder. That is the way of the family. That is the way of our people and has been so ever since Abraham asked questions of God over the fate of Sodom.
The Haggadah teaches us that questions are always welcome, irrespective of their difficulty or, alternatively, of their utter simplicity, and that we must always respond to a question according to the nature of the child who poses it.
That, too, is the way of the seder.
The presence and participation of our children are indispensable to the very essence of the ritual and suggests its core purpose: to teach and to instruct – it is entirely didactic. We encourage our children to be curious, to delve, to explore, to enquire, to find pleasure in learning, and in the process perhaps too, in eventually discovering for themselves – one day if not on seder night – that they belong to something much larger than the family around the table.
And this realization is a source of profound emotion for the parents and grandparents at the seder. For in the faces and the behaviours of our children and grandchildren, we recall and see the faces of people whom we once loved and who were always so prominently at our seder tables past, but are no more.
“And you shall tell your children on that very day” (Exodus 13:8) was God’s commandment to the recently freed Israelite slaves.
That is what we do at the seder. We tell our children, gently, tenderly, attentively, responsively, lovingly the story of the Exodus. It is their story too, even as it is the story of their ancestors.
The seder renews that story for each generation and helps create new memories for our children, forging those memories into the steadfast, unbreakable steel of shared responsibility, peoplehood and mission.