Shabbat candles: 4:25 p.m.
Torah reading: Genesis 10:1-13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Havdalah: 5:29 p.m.
Parshat Bo deals with the final plagues and the essential themes of Passover. England’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that when Moses addresses the Jewish people, who are about to exit Egypt, he doesn’t focus on freedom, or the Land of Israel, but on the “children and the distant future and the duty to pass on memory to generations yet unborn.”
Three times Moses stresses the theme of how to respond to our children when they ask what is the meaning of these ceremonies, of these memories, related to Passover and the Exodus. Says Rabbi Sacks, we have the obligation to become a nation of educators. Freedom, he explains, needs three institutions: parenthood, education and memory.
There are three passages from this week’s portion, and a fourth passage from Vatechanan in the Book of Deuteronomy, that have become the basis for the “Four Children” in the Haggadah: one who is “wise” [Deut. 6:20]; one who is “evil/rebellious” [Exodus 12:26-27); one who is “simple” [Ex. 11-15]; and one “unable to even ask a question” [Ex. 13:7-8].
Yet what can these references teach us about educating the next generation?
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, questioned the symmetry in the Haggadah that juxtaposes the hacham (the wise child) with the rasha (the rebellious/evil child). Shouldn’t the contrast instead be between a tzaddik (righteous) child and the rasha? Otherwise, said Reb Shlomo, it would make more sense to contrast the wise child with the simple child, or the child who is unable to ask.
Reb Shlomo’s insight was that the wise child might have a lot of “book” knowledge but that doesn’t necessarily make him a tzaddik because if he were he would be able to influence the rasha away from his wayward ways.
Reb Shlomo provides a cautionary note about the purpose of learning, of being smart: We should encourage the learned to influence those around them because that is what truly makes them wise, if not righteous.
Furthermore, the Haggadah has the hacham and the rasha asking almost the same question. The hacham asks: “What are the meaning of the laws and rules that God commanded you (etchem),” whereas the rasha says “to you” (lachem).” The rasha is defined as evil for saying “to you,” instead of otanu, “to us.” Yet the hacham uses the same “you” terminology!
The Rabbis explain that the rasha’s use of the term “to you” is the rasha’s way of separating himself from the Jewish people.
Perhaps it isn’t the rasha’s words so much as the tune, the niggun, that conveys the negative intonation and motivation, a question asked not out of some true interest but rather with an edge.
What then of the other two categories? The simple child (the tam) should also remind us that we can understand the word tam as when it was used to describe Jacob [Genesis 25:27]. With Jacob, tam didn’t mean a simpleton but someone with a naivete, someone who can relate to Judaism with a child-like wonder and innocence. Sometimes a tam might cause us to lose patience or be dismissive without realizing the great potential there.
And finally, the child that doesn’t even know how to ask; alas, that represents many of our fellow Jews who were not privileged to receive a Jewish education. While they may have advanced secular degrees, when it comes to their own heritage they can’t even formulate the basic questions, as they know almost nothing about Judaism. Yet we can’t forget the teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, of blessed memory, that at least this child is at the seder — what of the missing fifth child, the one so assimilated that he or she isn’t even at a seder?
And so even now, in January, in the month of Tevet, when snow and cold winds abound , with Hag Ha’Aviv, Passover, months away, we are reminded by Parshat Bo to reconnect to our heritage and at the same time to reach out to those who are not yet part of the community or to even those seemingly hostile; to turn to those with minimal or no Jewish backgrounds and provide a welcome mat and safe environment in which they can learn more; to not be dismissive of others because of the questions asked or they questions they fail to ask.
Remembering the Exodus, embracing our history and identity, isn't what we do only on Passover but rather is a year- long endeavor. It is a reminder that each of us can be a messenger or an educator, teaching our children (in a biological or communal sense), teaching those connected and not yet connected, what it is to be part of the Jewish people.
If hope springs eternal, notice that the days are getting longer and, before we know it, we will be cleaning our homes and readying ourselves for Passover. In the interim, let us use this time to focus on the meaning of identity and community, remember not what is the meaning “to you” but what is the meaning “to us.”
Dr. Adena K. Berkowitz is co- founder with Cantor Ari and Lauren Klein, of Kol HaNeshamah: the Center for Jewish Life and Enrichment. Co-author of “Shaarei Simcha-Gates of Joy,” the first modern liturgical work written by Orthodox women, she is a visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.