**Note: the blog post is PG. The video clip is not.

As Jonah (11) and I were driving to school this morning, we came up with an idea for the seder that I thought was a good one to share. One kids activity I’ve seen in various haggadot is to invite children to interview the grownups about the Exodus, as though they were news reporters covering the event. Given the preponderance of sports media in our home, Jonah and I played with the idea of making it specifically a sports interview (with the requisite sports interview answers by athletes). For example:

REPORTER: Moses, you’ve just won the Ten Plagues contest! How does it feel?

MOSES: Well Al, it feels really special, of course. I mean, we’ve been working at this for a long time, and to see this moment come true–well, it’s just something we’re going to remember for years and years, I’m sure. I imagine my grandkids–heck, maybe even their grandkids–will be talking about this one.

REPORTER: This was really an amazing victory. Tell me about your game plan taking on the Egyptians.

MOSES: Well, you know, we just wanted to stick with what got us here, you know? Focus on the fundamentals, work together as a team, believe in each other. The Egyptians are an amazing squad, with a really oppressive defense. We just had to be patient, take the opportunities when they came our way. And, you know, have faith.

REPORTER: In the first half, it looked like you might get an early victory. What happened after the fifth plague?

MOSES: Well, it was definitely looking good those first few plagues. I mean, after the blood and the frogs, we figured Pharaoh was ready to cave. But, as I said, they’re a tenacious bunch, and it seems like they just really stiffened their resolve and bore down on their game plan even more. So we knew we were in for a long struggle.

REPORTER: Let’s talk about that tenth plague. Take us inside your thought process on that one.

MOSES: Well, you know, that was the scariest of the whole bunch. I mean, we felt like we just had to huddle up and let the Good Lord do the work. We established good protection for our team, and then the play just took its course. I wouldn’t exactly call it a Hail Mary or anything, but… It was a real test of our resolve.

REPORTER: So you’ve got this championship under your belt. What’s the next step?

MOSES: Well, Al, we just want to take it one step at a time. There are still more majors to win: the Sinai championships are coming up, and after that the Canaan marathon. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But I just think, with this team, anything is possible. And at the end of the day, I just really want to say that I thank God–I mean, God was really on our side in this one.

REPORTER: Thanks Moses, and congratulations again on the championship. Best of luck to you and the Israelites.

MOSES: Thanks Al.

REPORTER: Moses, on winning the Ten Plagues championship over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. An instant classic, isn’t it Heather? Back to you in the studio.

Passover is the Jewish people’s most child-centered holiday. From the game of hide-and-seek during the search for hametz on the night before the seder, to the bookend game of finding the afikomen that enables the seder to conclude, children are the focus of much of the attention of the holiday. The Torah itself directs our minds to our children in the verse that forms the basis of the seder itself: “On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)

The Answers We Give the Child
Of course the centerpiece of the child’s involvement in the seder is in the asking of questions. The universal custom is for the youngest child at the seder to ask the Four Questions—observing “how different is this night from all other nights!” It is not simply that we tell our children the story; the point is to engage them in a dialogue, in a night of questions and answers. Again, this gesture is commanded by the Torah, which instructs, a few verses after the one we just quoted: “”In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” (Exodus 13:14) The child will ask, and the child must be led to ask.

But what answer do we give? The Mishnah tells us to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise.” The sages of the Talmud disagreed on what this meant: “Rav said: In the beginning our ancestors were idol-worshippers. Shumel said: We were slaves.” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 116a) The commentators on the Talmud offer different understandings of what the Talmud means, but the custom has already been well-established for many centuries: We first say “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” (Shmuel’s answer) and, after several interludes, we say “In the beginning, our ancestors were idol-worshippers” (Rav’s answer).

In his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides records the law as follows:

It is a commandment to teach one’s children, even if they did not ask, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child.” The father teaches his son according to his intelligence. How so? If he was a child or a fool, say to him, “My son, we were all slaves–like this maidservant, or this manservant–in Egypt. And on this night, the Holy One Blessed Be He redeemed us and took us out to freedom.” And if the son is grown or wise, teach him what happened to us in Egypt, and the miracles that were done for us by Moses. All is according to the intelligence of the child…

And one must begin in lowliness and conclude in praise. How so? Begin and tell of how originally our ancestors, in the days of Terach and before him, wrongly and falsely followed after vanity and chased after idolatry. And conclude in the true worship, that God brought us near to Him and separated us from the wayward, and drew us to his uniqueness. And likewise begin and make known that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, including all the evil that they did unto us; and conclude with the miracles and wonders that were done for us, and our freedom. And this is where one expounds from “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean” until he finishes the section. And all who elaborate upon the expounding of this section–this is praiseworthy. (Laws of Hametz and Matzah Ch. 7, laws 2 and 4)

In the first law, the Rambam focuses on Shmuel’s answer of “We were slaves,” and makes the educational task very concrete. If one has a slave in one’s house (and this is not the place to take up the question of Jews owning slaves), one uses the slave as a prop in the drama. Interesting the Rambam mentions that we teach our children about the works of Moses, who is of course not mentioned in the Haggadah.

In the second law, the Rambam seems to indicate that we begin with Rav’s answer, focusing on the wayward worship of our ancestors. Once that context has been laid, we can talk about slavery and liberation. But, showing his theological tendencies, the Rambam here emphasizes the overarching goal not only of the seder, but of all commandments: to know and serve the one true God.

Is there an inconsistency here? Is the Rambam contradicting himself? (more…)

A quick shout-out to my college friend and fantastic Jewish educator Rabbi Josh Cahan, who has a new blog about independent prayer groups and other thoughtful stuff. Here’s a post on the effect of children in indie minyans: http://joshcahan.blogspot.com/2010/01/children-and-identity.html.

Happy reading.

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.

Shabbat Shalom.

About a year ago, my older son Jonah called out to me to come into his room. “I can’t sleep,” he said. “Can you tell me a story?” Now storytelling is one of the lacunae in my repertoire. That is to say, I’m good at telling stories when I have stories to tell; but I don’t have a good repository of stories from which to draw. So, on the spot, I went to my strength: “How about the story of Jacob from the Bible,” I said.

Jonah ate it up. Of course, he was generally familiar with these stories before. But this led to a new bedtime ritual: after Natalie read him his ‘regular’ story, I would come in and read him a story from one of the many children’s Bibles we have at home. We’ll set aside the point that most Bible stories are not really suitable for children, as they’re about violence and betrayal and things like that. As Plato cautioned, children who are not capable of understanding allegory really shouldn’t be exposed to stories that demand allegorical interpretation.

Be that as it may, we continued to read Bible stories nightly, working our way through the Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Esther, Ruth, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. When we had gone through these stories several times, we started reading children’s midrashim–legends that build off of the stories in the Bible. And when we ran out of those, I started using Bialik’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah, or Book of Legends. But that requires a lot of sifting.

So last week I realized we could do something else. “How about the Mishnah?” I asked him. (For an explanation of the Mishnah, click here.) We began with Bava Metziah, a section of the Mishnah that deals with lost objects and movable property in general. Of course, studying Mishnah with a 6-year old requires translating terms into ones they can understand. “If two men find a garment and both lay claim to it” becomes, “If you and your best friend Avi were walking down the street and found a Darth Vader action figure at the same time, and you both grabbed it, how would you decide who it belongs to?”

In general Jonah has really been able to get it. “They’re like math problems,” he says. “Only harder, and the answer isn’t always as clear.” Yes, he gets it.

This morning we were studying a mishnah in the second chapter of Bava Metziah. What happens, asks the Mishnah, when you find a lost animal? You need to announce that you have it, and try to return it to its owner. But in the meantime, it requires feeding, which will cost you money. So can you use the animal productively in order to make money with which to feed it, or not? (Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva disagree on this point.) Related to this, the Mishnah teaches that when you find a book (which were scrolls in those days), you have read from it at least once every thirty days. But you may not intentionally use it for study, and you may not read it with someone else.

I tried to help Jonah understand the subtlety the Mishnah was conveying. “It’s not your object,” I said. “But you have to take care of it as though it were.” There is great philosophical material here, stuff that people like Levinas and my other intellectual fodder write about a lot: What are our obligations to one another, and how are those expressed in the responsibilities outlined in the Mishnah? I couldn’t mention Levinas, but these are also things a 6-year old can grasp if framed correctly.

I wasn’t quite sure he got it, until 10 minutes later, well after we had stopped reading together, when out of nowhere he said, “Abba, it’s kind of like if you find a child, or if someone’s parents died and you took care of them. You’d have to treat him as your own son, right?” Levinas was smiling.

We’ve had a house guest with us the last few days, a fellow named Josh Stanton. Josh is a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College, and is the editor and founder of the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. He and I are both attending the Interfaith Youth Core’s conference, which is being held this week at Northwestern.

Josh contacted me a couple of months ago about staying with us, and I immediately said yes. We didn’t know each other, but I feel a sense of openness and responsibility towards rabbinic students, so there was no question in my mind about hosting him.

IMG_0066This isn’t a post about Josh, though (he’s a very nice and intelligent guy doing important work to improve the world). It’s actually a post about my kids.

This morning, Jonah and Micah were having breakfast, when Josh came upstairs from the guest room into the kitchen. Josh and the kids hadn’t met yet, so immediately Josh introduced himself. And what was amazing was that the kids engaged him–not just in the momentary, “My name is Jonah, My name is Micah” part, but for ten or fifteen minutes (which enabled me to get upstairs and get myself ready to take them to school). They had a long conversation. By the time we were ready to go, Jonah asked me, “Abba, can Josh come to school with us?”

Josh commented to me that we have very engaging kids. “When I was four,” he said, “if a stranger said hello, I’d probably run away.” I replied that our kids have grown up with a very open sense of home. Every week they ask if we’re having company for Shabbat, because they expect it. We frequently have guests in our home. And they also have a second home at Hillel. All of this leads them to be very comfortable meeting new people and engaging them. I suppose I’ve taken a lot of this for granted, but this encounter with Josh reminded me of this very special aspect of the work that I do–which spills over into our personal lives in a very significant way.

I frequently write and teach about my favorite of the Big Questions that are so central to my philosophy, namely, “Where do you feel at home?” And I often teach a piece of Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference in relation to it:

What would faith be like? It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like being fluent in English, yet thrilled by the rhythms and resonances of an Italian sonnet one only partially understands. It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to mankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now. (p. 65)

I think this sums up the kind of people we’re trying to raise our kids–and our students–to be. I say this humbly, but if my kids are any indication, it looks like we’re doing something right.

“And you will tell you child on that day saying, ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.'” (Ex. 13:8) This verse from Parshat Bo has become better-known as part of the Passover Seder. Near the conclusion of the Maggid section of the Seder, we hold up the matzah and point to it and recount that we eat the matzah “because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.”

This is a powerful moment, one that endures in the memory of a child who grows up with it. Why?

In his commentary called the Torah Temima, the early twentieth century scholar Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein observes that this is one of several verses in the Torah involving the word “zeh,” or “this,” which are understood to involve pointing. Earlier in the parsha (Ex. 12:2) God tells Moses and Aaron, “Hachodesh hazeh yihyeh lachem rosh chodashim,” “This month shall be for you the first of the months.” The midrash explains that at that moment God, as it were, pointed to the new moon, since Moses had trouble seeing it. Rabbi Epstein finds other instances in the Torah and Rabbinic legend where the word “zeh” is linked to a moment of pointing.

In all these cases, the pointing becomes an act of symbol interpretation. The moon becomes a symbol for renewal, the matzah becomes a symbol for the enduring truth of the Exodus. By pointing and saying, “See this thing? This thing tells me something,” we do something fundamental to our humanity: We imbue objects with meaning. The philosopher Jean Piaget would say that symbol interpretation of this kind is a key developmental task on a child’s road to maturity. By returning to the matzah every year, we go back to that powerful moment in our own childhoods, when the world was still an enchanted place. We rekindle our childlike sense of wonder and our simple sense of faith.

From the same verse the ancient Rabbis also derived the precept that “in every generation, every person is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt,” since the verse says that this is “because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.” I like to say that my work is often about complicating the simple, and simplifying the complicated. Our Egypts can be complicated places. Perhaps, the Torah tells us, to leave Egypt we have to re-enter childhood.

Shabbat shalom.