In each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt. As it says: “You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of this that God took me out of Egypt.'” (Exodus 13:8)
“It’s freedom, baby, yeah!”
– Austin Powers
We’re deep into model seder season here at the school. All through the school, students from iCare and RJDS are singing Pesach songs, sharing teachings about freedom and slavery, and enjoying the matzah ball soup and brownies deliciously prepared by Marsha, who is really the balabusteh or rebbetzin of the school. And now that the folding chairs have been put away, the matzah crumbs swept up, and the grape-juice stained tablecloths taken off to be laundered, I’m sitting here trying to process it all. Part of trying to understand this experience is to know at a deep level that we as a people have been conducting seders for thousands of years, and what we do with our model seders and seders at home is another link in this timeless chain of tradition. The words and tunes on the lips of the students today are the same as from students from hundreds, or even thousands of years ago in Jerusalem, or Maghreb or Krakow, or one of the countless places we have lived over the centuries. And we tell the same story of our Exodus over and over again, and indeed, the haggadah states that “all who expound upon the Passover story shall be praised.”
But really, what are we doing this for? What is the ultimate purpose of being a part of this chain, beyond the broad terms of continuity and tradition? There has to be something more to this than going through the choreography of the order of the seder, who gets to sing ma nishtana, how much matzah are we really required to eat, and so on.
While the haggadah makes much of the centrality of Pesach, Matzah and Maror, the one song that I think begins to answer these questions, and that always makes me stop and think is Dayenu, which translates as “It Would Have Been Enough For Us!” It begins with Had He brought us out of Egypt, It Would Have Been Enough For Us and then sequentially chronicles all the good God did for us along the way, from Egypt to Israel to the building the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. And at each point, along the way, the refrain is “It Would Have Been Enough For Us!”. As if just taking us out of Egypt would have been enough. Or dividing the sea for us. Or spending 40 years in the desert. We know that’s not true. We know there is an end game in mind, which is alluded to in the last three stanzas of Dayenu – giving us the Torah, bringing us to Israel and building the Holy Temple.
We were slaves. And then we were given the gift of freedom. But how to use that freedom to really live as Jews, be it in our homeland or not, with the Temple or otherwise? And how do we do it successfully?
Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his 1953 essay “The Spirit of Jewish Education”, writes at length about what this gift of freedom is for, and the significance and role of Jewish education in all of this. He writes:
“… I would like to suggest as a goal of Jewish education that every Jew… become aware that Judaism is an answer to the ultimate problems of human existence and not merely a way of handling observances…
The Hebrew term for education means not only to train but also to dedicate, to consecrate. And to consecrate the child must be our goal… The survival of the Jewish people is our basic concern. But what kind of survival we must continually ask, and for what purpose?
Our goal must be to enable the pupil to participate and share in the spiritual experience of Jewish living; to explain to him or her what it means to live a likeness of God. For what is involved in being a Jew? Duties of the heart, not only external performance; the ability to experience the suffering of others, compassion and acts of kindness; sanctification of time, not the mere observance of customs and ceremonies; the joy of discipline, not the pleasures of conceit; sacrifice, not casual celebrations, contrition, rather than national pride…
Here of course, everything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom… the modern teacher… is a link in the chain of tradition. He is the intermediary between the past and the present as well. Yet she is also the creator of the future of our people. The teacher must teach the pupils to evaluate the past in order to clarify their future.”
What do you think? Is Heschel’s vision for Judaism and Jewish education too utopian, or is it achievable? Do you agree that we left Egypt to gain the freedom to discover that Judaism is in Heschel’s words “an answer to the ultimate problems of human existence and not merely a way of handling observances”?
I’ll be honest – there are days where I’m driving to work, and the true power of what we are trying to do with our students and families hits me, and I find myself moved to tears. What is Pesach really, really about? God took us out of Egypt and gave us the Torah to really learn how to live powerful, holy and meaningful lives. The responsibility to give over this spiritual inheritance and way of being to our children and students is immense. We are honoured to do it, and we are humbled to partner with our families in doing this holy work. It’s all of our responsibility. No one else will do it for us.
Enjoy your families, enjoy your seders. Shabbat Shalom, and chag cheirut kasher v’sameach.