Wednesday, March 24, 2010

You Shall Tell Your Children

I had a profound experience a few nights ago. I sat on our couch with my son Elisha, just shy of 2 ½, and an illustrated haggadah, and I used the pictures to tell him the story of the Exodus. As I talked I was overwhelmed by a feeling of deep fulfillment. For my whole life I have read, studied, and analyzed the verse "you shall tell your children on that day, this is because of what God did for me when I went out from Egypt." I can offer ten different approaches to understanding its meaning. The whole seder experience is really a grand exegesis of these two words, vehigadeta levinkha, you shall tell your child. Yet in a way it feels like all of the sedarim I have participated in and led were just place-fillers until I could do exactly that – sit with my son and tell him the story.

It is what I imagine the medieval sages felt who finally saw the Land of Israel after a lifetime of imagining it in their prayers. It is also the most profound message of arami oved avi, the biblical passage whose exegesis is the heart of the haggadah. This short passage is a brief history of the Israelites' journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They went down to Egypt and were enslaved, but then God brought them out and brought them to Israel. What is most important about this text, though, is when it was used. It was recited when an Israelite brought the first fruits of his land to the Temple to give thanks to God. In other words, an Israelite living peacefully in Israel and enjoying the rich fruit of the land would come to the Temple bearing that fruit and say, I am the end of the story. All of the travails and hardships that my grandparents endured were to enable this moment to happen. This moment is the realization of that vision. In the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, "We are our grandfathers' dreams." A simple moment of living life, a simple act of giving thanks. The Seder is, in a way, our first fruits moment, when we sit as free people and acknowledge the ways in which this moment, and our blessed lives, are the fulfillment of the dreams of many generations of ancestors.

This telling is also about the challenge of conveying who we are. I have been steeped in the story my whole life. For as long as I can remember it has been self-evident that this is my story, that it is essential to who I am and to my place in the world. Now I look at my own son and ask, how do I actually shape that experience? How do I encourage him to embrace this identity and see it as a source of pride? This is the first moment where I am not just teaching him things – words, ideas, behaviors. It is where I begin to tell him, this is who we are, this is our story. It is a task which will occupy many years, one whose path is uncertain but whose outcome is deeply important to me. It is a moment where I acknowledge that I have a vision for who I want him to be, a vision that I will try hard to impart while always knowing that I do not control who he will become.


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