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Parshas -- Pesach (5777)

Pesach: Time to "Pass Over" Judaism to the Next Generation

Most people you ask will likely tell you that the name of the “Passover” holiday comes from the verse in Exodus 12:23 in which Moses tells the Jewish people that if they slaughter the Paschal Lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts, then G-d will pass over (from the root word Pesach in Hebrew) their homes and only kill the firstborn of their Egyptian neighbors.

What is not so well known is that the word Pesach has an alternate meaning. Rashi in his commentary to Exodus 12:13 and 12:23 quotes Targum Onkelos and Mechilta who are of the opinion that the root word Pesach actually means “mercy”, with the intended meaning of the verse that G-d will have mercy on the Jews in their homes and spare their firstborn sons’ lives.

According to this view, the holiday of Pesach should really be called “Mercy”. [Imagine telling all your friends that you are flying to Miami for Mercy. And what about all those expensive “Kosher for Mercy” products at the supermarket?]

The truth is that Passover is a more suitable name for the holiday because Pesach is really the time of year when we are meant to “pass over” to the next generation the story of the Exodus which is the very foundation of our faith. At the Passover Seder we teach our children how the Jewish nation began and how we got to where we are today.

This is especially important because although the first generation of Jews witnessed the Exodus and all the miracles that G-d performed for them firsthand, future generations would not have shared this experience. To them, the tradition would have to be transmitted by parents and grandparents, for the eternal nation must never lose its connection to the events and faith that shaped it. And the Passover Seder is the time when that transmission happens and when we impart to our kids what it means to be a Jew.

It is for this reason that every child must be engaged on this special night, each at his/her own level. Which explains why the Haggadah tells us about the “Four Sons” who show up at the Seder – the Wise Son, the Wicked Son, the Simple Son, and the Son Who is Unable to Ask – and guides us as to how best to transmit to each of them the foundations of Judaism.

In reality, these Four Sons are already alluded to in the Torah itself where we are told about future generations who will show up at the Seder table and ask us questions about the Exodus and the origin of the Jewish faith.

The only problem is that some of the responses that the Haggadah proposes that we give to the Four Sons don’t seem to match the responses mentioned in the Torah!

Take the Wise Son, for example.

In the Haggadah, we read how the Wise Son asks: “What are the testimonies and the decrees and the ordinances that the L-ord, our G-d, commanded you?” This question clearly finds its source in Deuteronomy 6:20 where the Torah states: “If your child asks you tomorrow, saying, ‘What are the testimonies and the decrees and the ordinances that the L-ord, our G-d, commanded you?’

Yet the response that the Haggadah proposes that we give the Wise Son is different than the one mentioned in the Torah!

In the Haggadah we are told: "Therefore explain to him [the Wise Son] the laws of the Passover offering: that one may not eat dessert after the final taste of the Passover offering".

Whereas in Deuteronomy the Torah instructs us: “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the L-ord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. The L-ord placed signs and wonders, great and harmful, against Egypt, against Pharaoh, and against his entire household, before our eyes. And He took us out of there in order to bring us, to give us the Land that He swore to our forefathers. The L-ord commanded us to perform all these decrees, to fear the L-ord, our G-d, for our good, all the days, to give us life, as this very day. And it will be a merit for us if we are careful to perform this entire commandment before the L-ord, our G-d, as He commanded us.’" (see Deuteronomy 6:21-25).

Why does the Haggadah offer a different response than the one that the Torah itself offers to the Wise Son’s question?

Many commentators on the Haggadah answer this puzzling enigma as follows: The Wise Son at our Seder table notices the different kinds of commandments that we find in the Torah – testimonies, decrees, ordinances – and wants to know the ultimate purpose of all these commandments. So it goes without saying that we need to respond to the Wise Son’s questions exactly like the Torah instructs us in Deuteronomy. We must share with him the story of the Exodus and the philosophical proofs of the truth of our faith, the purpose of all the Torah’s commandments, and the ultimate goal of Judaism which is to come close to G-d.

The response to the Wise Son suggested to us in the Haggadah is in no way meant to contradict the Torah’s response to the Wise Son. All that the Haggadah is saying is that since this child is so wise, he can handle more Torah knowledge and wisdom – beyond that which the Torah in Deuteronomy requires us to teach him - and we should therefore also explain to him the laws of the Passover offering etc.

Now I know that there is a lot of important stuff about our faith that we need to transmit to our children on the night of Passover, and on top of that we also have to drink four cups of wine, eat matzah, marror, and a whole holiday meal, so it is a busy night indeed and we can’t teach them everything.

But if we look carefully at the Torah’s response to the Wise Son mentioned above, we will find one incredibly important idea which I believe is absolutely critical for all our children and ourselves to hear and absorb into our minds and souls on Passover night. And that idea can be found in verse 24 (ibid): “The L-ord commanded us to perform all these decrees, to fear the L-ord, our G-d, for our good, all the days, to give us life, as this very day”.

What the Torah is teaching us in this verse – and what we need to pass over to our children at the Passover Seder – is that everything that G-d commands us in the Torah, including the seemingly irrational chukim (decrees), is all “for our good”.

That’s right! You read that correctly. G-d doesn’t need us to wear Tefillin (phylacteries) every morning for His sake. After all, He is perfection itself and doesn’t “need” anything from anybody. G-d doesn’t get a migraine every time we eat pork chops or speak lashon hara (slander). And if we transgress the Sabbath, it affects us negatively but it doesn’t affect Him at all. Everything that the Torah commands us to do or not to do is ultimately for our good.

Of course we have to serve G-d and do His will regardless of whether or not it’s for our own good, because we owe Him our very lives and everything that we have. But we need to know and have in the back of our minds at all times that serving G-d and keeping His commandments is all for our good.

This fundamental Jewish idea that all the commandments were given to us for our good and not G-d’s is really a game-changer, as it portrays the Torah and all its many laws in a whole new light.

May we merit this Passover to successfully transmit to the next generation all the wisdom, beauty and truth that Judaism has to offer - and to always remember that it’s all for our good.

HAVE A HAPPY AND HEALTHY PASSOVER!

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