Passover 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Passover 5776

When it is all said and done, the Passover Seder is a very personal family experience. We share a table across generations. Parents teach and children ask questions and learn. It’s been pointed out that the name Pesach, actually comes from…peh…sicach The mouth speaks. We are obligated on this holiday to tell the story.

I was thinking, as we sit at the table and we tell time. By that I mean, we notice the passage of the years. Loved ones who are no longer with us, young ones growing up. Older members of the family may delight in the growth of their children and grandchildren and yes, we can say these days…there are many families with four generations. And that is a blessing.

And so there is delight in the growth and the realization of the increased knowledge and sophistication of the next generation. When a generation sees that, just maybe, they have passed something of great significance on to the next, there is almost a feeling of relief.

There are times when we look at life and wonder what it is about. What is the meaning of our lives? What do we want to leave when we are no longer here?

And I sense that many who sit here this morning, would agree, we want to pass on an identity that includes belonging to a particular people with a particular value system, a culture and a Torah. At the end of the day, after a generation the portfolio of investments we leave will not be remembered as ours, but our traditions and identity will.

I read a beautiful piece by a Chassidic master in the section in the haggadah known as “yachatz”. This is the section when we break the matzah. The larger piece is for the children to find. It is the afikomen. And once it is found, their job is to bring it back and make the matzah whole again…just for a little while. And then we can eat it as dessert. And the message in it is that our children have the capacity to make us whole in a way that others can’t.
We know that they also have the capacity to allow us to feel broken, in a way that no one else can.

The Chassidic story teller went on…He said, I can be out at a concert until late at night. And if anyone were to wake me early, I’d be so upset. I’m dead tired.
But when my children wake me up…that is an experience of joy! I’m sure those who are parents know that experience. And although it may be overstated, the point is well taken our children can bring a sense of wholeness. On Pesach, we can feel that. And…it’s is true that when they don’t metaphorically return the afikomen; we feel broken.

If we were not woken during the night by our children, we would feel something is wrong. Now when they were teenagers, their absence can lead to our sleeplessness, a much greater pain then when they wake us up.

There’s something so beautiful about this relationship. And it is certainly emphasized during two of our most holy gatherings….Pesach at the Seder. And also Rosh HaShanah. There it is the birth of a child, Sara and Chanah, the near death of a child in the binding of Isaac…the centrality of the life of our children, is emphasized again and again.

We know that the centrality of that relationship is a critical component of the Seder. Because the Seder is the moment par-excellence when we enter into a dialogue with our children in the context of Jewish ritual. And so we show and tell with objects connecting to meaning and history. We encourage the asking of questions and we sing the songs of our people together.

Today I’d like to look at a section that we always focus on in terms of the children. These are the four children.
The HaCham
The Rasha
The Tam
And the Sheino yodeiah Lishol

You know these kids: The one is defined as wise, one as wicked or evil, one is simple and one doesn’t know how to ask.

And I’d like to look at this section and change our focus. I don’t want to look at the children. I want to look at the parent.

How do we answer? What is the nature of the answer? Are we in fact as helpful for growth as we might be? Are there more appropriate answers then the ones that we are given?

What is there in the Haggadah is instructional, but maybe incomplete. And the capacity for us to take a text and turn it over and over again and reconsider meaning is critical for our understanding and keeping the tradition alive.

We think that parents are the primary source of knowledge for their children. There is truth in that. But we learn as we become more sophisticated, that parents can also cause disturbance in their children. One of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century was a woman named Alice Miller. She studied hundreds, if not thousands of children. And her specialty was traumatized children. And she seems to have concluded that almost all children are in some way injured by their parents. It seems obvious to us in some cases, but a lot less obvious in others. But, her conclusions indicate that we all do some damage to our children, usually inadvertently. It’s because we are imperfect. No one really knows all the answers on how to parent. Our own teachers our parents…they too were imperfect! You get it.

So this morning I wanted to look, not the children and their questions, but the parents responses to the four children. And see, if just perhaps there may be other answers and more to learn.

And so we begin.
We learn that the wise son asks questions that reveal that he knows something. He can distinguish between chukkim and mishpatim…Different types of laws. And he says “Otanu”…What’s the meaning of the laws and ordinances that God gave us” So how is he answered? You tell him all the laws of Pesach!

What does that mean?
There are so many laws? A mosechet of the gemarah (a whole section of the Talmud) is dedicated to the laws of Pesach…
And so he gets a lot of time from his parent. He gets a lot of attention.
We don’t even stop teaching after the afikomen.

And so what might be wrong with this little piece of parenting?
Maybe the parent needs to teach the wise son something else. Maybe a part of wisdom can be found in listening. Maybe the capacity to be quiet is a lesson for the wise son. The wise son perhaps will be much more effective in the world if he is taught to listen…

In our desire to reinforce what is smart and strong about our children….maybe we over-enforce it…and maybe we do them a disservice. Maybe we reinforce the arrogance of the learned one.

The wise son said “otanu” he knows to include himself in the story. It’s the very opposite of the Rasha…the one who says “what is this to YOU.”

But we know that true growth, true personal growth and development needs a period of alienation, a time when we see ourselves as different and other than our parents.

A parent who can live in that…a parent who can be patient with that…and not identify it as, rasha, as evil…may be a parent who has a much better chance of seeing the child return, by allowing for true growth which calls for individuation, separation in order to internalize a particular identity.

Rebelliousness need not be equated with a rashah. Rebelliousness is a part of growth and differentiation.

Do you know what it says in the text? You know we are to do to the rasha? We are to hit him in his teeth. Now, our translators kept that out. But that’s what’s there.

And we also know what a strike against a child does to them. It’s not just at that moment. It can last a life time! A physical blow, a cruel word, inappropriate anger; these are not tools for learning and positive growth.

We hope that our children will come one day to identify with our family’s traditions and culture. It’ll happen when we express it with joy and love and meaning. The Rasha may be expressing a normal dimension of growth and rebelliousness…the parent’s response reflects intolerance and cruelty. That then becomes the message.

So how do we respond to a child who continues to be rebellious, hostile and rejecting?

There are wonderful psychological responses that come from the Chassidic masters. The Bratzlaver Rabbe says that we allow all of his feelings to come forward. And he points out that we are often made angry when the wayward child expresses doubts and questions and feelings because we actually harbor them ourselves and repress them because we are afraid of uncertainty. And so when he expresses them we get angry, we lash out, we get anxious. The key is to allow that expression.

And when processed there is the possibility of a greater truth emerging. Spiritual maturity allows for a life without certainty. And our patience models something that becomes a teacher for the child!!

And the one who is simple. Here the response is really informative. Because we give a simple response. And it shows a great understanding about relationships. Because to be in another’s place, to see from their perspective is to empathize. And empathy is critical for connection and love. It allows people to feel safe and not be judged. It’s about the needs of the other whether we are teachers or parents or even friends.

And it connects smoothly to the one who does not know how to ask. Why would one not know how to ask? Perhaps it’s a severe disability; perhaps it is overwhelming uncertainty and fear.

And our job…The Haggadah says: At petach lo…you open the child up.
How do we open another? We create a sense of safety.

I saw a wonderful interview with two execs at Google. They were speaking about the teams they create to make the company productive. And they said the following: the single quality in our groups that allow for the development that is necessary is the quality of safety. If you’re in one of our research groups you can dreams and project and imagine and speak about any idea. And no one will laugh at you. You won’t be demoted or lose your job. And, additionally, everyone has to participate in the conversation. We don’t allow wise ones to over dominate, we make sure everyone, even the quietest amongst us speaks and shares ideas. And at the end of the day…they are often the most important contributors.

And I thought…Google gets what the Haggadah is saying here!

When one tempers wisdom and humility Divine insight follows.

We are all the students and the teachers. We are all the parents and the children. We are all wise, and rebellious, simple and at times the ones who don’t even know what to ask.

May we find the balance to create the most meaningful learning possible?
May we learn from each other…and teach each other too…

That is the essence of our religious life.
And that is the essence of this telling, this haggadah that we love so.

I would like to conclude with a poem. It expresses the power that every parent brings to this day.
[blockquote name=”Yehuda Amichai”]
My father was a god and did not know it. He gave me The Ten Commandments neither in thunder nor in fury; neither in fire nor in cloud. But rather in gentleness and love. And he added caresses and kind words and he added “I beg You,” and “please.”

And he sand “keep” and “remember” the Shabbat.

In a single melody and he pleaded and cried quietly between one utterance and the next.

“Do not take the name of God in vain,” do not take it, not in vain.
I beg you, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
And he hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear
“Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.”
And he put the palms of his open hand on my head with the Yom Kippur blessing.

“Honor, love, in order that your days might be long on the earth.”

And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time like on the day when he died in my arms and said, “I want to add to Two to the Ten Commandments:

    The Eleventh Commandment – “Thou shall not change.”
    And the Twelfth Commandment – “Thou must surely change.”

So said my father then he turned from me and walked off, disappearing into his strange distances.[/blockquote]

Chag Sameach
Shabbat Shalom