I grew up as the youngest of three brothers. I remmeber when my oldest brother Dan and his wife Sara had their first child, Hadas. When I went to play with her, I wasn’t a natural–I didn’t have a lot of experience playing with children. And I remember my brother pointing this out to me: ”Yeah, you’re a youngest kid.”
He was right. I wasn’t the kind of person who noticed baby carriages all that much, or thought about young children when I was becoming an adult. They were kind of an abstraction to me.
All that has changed now, of course, because I have my own kids. I like to think I’m good at playing with children, and I see babies and toddlers in the world much more than I did when I was younger.
I bring this up because one of the central themes of Parshat Bo, the Torah portion fort his week, is children. When Moses tells Pharaoh to let the people go, Pharaoh asks, ”Who will go?” Moses replies, “With our young and our old we will go, with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we will go, for it is a holiday to the Lord.” Pharaoh responds, “The Lord be with you if I let the children go,” or in other words, No way. (Ex. 10:9-10) God then brings the plague of locusts. When Pharaoh asks Moses to intercede and send the locusts away, he says, “Go and worship God, only leave the flocks and the herds–your children may also go with you.” (Ex. 10:24)
Of course, the plague of the firstborn is a plague affecting both children and adults, but even the adults are thought of in the context of their births–as children. And then we have the commandment of the seder, in which Moses emphasizes, “When your children say to you, What is this celebration to you? And you will say, This is the Passover offering to God, who passed over the house if the Israelites in Egypt when he slew the Egyptians and saved our homes.” (Ex. 12:27) This passage will become central to the seder experience until today, which revolves around a multigenerational telling of the Exodus story.
We can ask some interesting questions about what it meant to be a child in the ancient world, and how the Torah understands children. An academic philosophical article entitled ‘What is a Child?’, by Tamar Shapiro (Ethics 109), analyzes what has happened to our idea of children in the modern period, particularly in Kant and Locke. We often get in our heads the idea that the trajectory from childhood to adulthood is a straight one, that we ‘lose our innocence,’ become physically mature, and enter the world of adulthood. But as Shapiro points out, and as current developmental theory maintains, it is not a straight line. It is not so easy to define who is a child and who is an adult, particularly given the reality of adults who do not have full mental or physical functioning–they are not children, and we therefore cannot define ‘child’ or ‘adult’ simply on the basis of physical or mental status. Or at least those definitions need to be understood as provisional.
I think the Torah was already onto this. While a contemporary thinker has dubbed the Jews the “Ever Dying People,” for always thinking that we’re about to peter out for one reason or another, I would argue that we are the Ever Young People. Our central ritual, the seder, is built around play–”In every generation one is obligated to see himself as though he personally left Egypt.” This is a playful imagining, an act of a child: “Let’s dress up and pretend!”
We put children front and center in the Seder evening, as the Four Children section of the Haggadah demonstrates, and which reminds us, We are all children–or we need to remember what it is to be children. That is, the world does not have to be as it is, it can be changed. A child’s freedom of imagination and play is a threat to the hard stability of Pharaoh. The world can be different–even if you’re a slave, you can be free.