V’hayah ki yishalcha vincha machar laymor “Mah zot?”
And when, in times to come, a child of yours asks you, “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14)
As we enter Parshat Bo the Exodus narrative is reaching its climax: the plague of locusts descends, then darkness so dense that the Torah says one could touch it. Pharaoh nearly relents, but once again his heart stiffens. Moses confronts him for the final time, and warns Pharaoh that if he still will not let the people go, every first-born of Egypt will die, and all of Egypt will end up begging the Children of Israel to leave. Moses storms out of the palace.
At this dramatic moment the Torah breaks away from the story and describes how this and all future generations are to mark and remember this night of the Passover: with roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs; with a Passover feast that initiates a seven day Festival of Unleavened Bread; and with the commandment to remove all leaven from one’s house and belongings. The Torah then instructs us,
And when your children ask you, “What is the meaning of this ritual to you?” you shall tell them, “It is the Pesach (Passover) offering to YHVH, who pasach (passed over) the houses of the Children of Israel when afflicting the Egyptians, and saved our households.” (Ex. 12: 26-27)
The narrative then resumes, the blood is applied to the doorposts, and the Angel of Death sweeps across the land. Pharaoh lets the Children of Israel go, and they rush away, baking unleavened bread for they could not delay.
But the Torah breaks the narrative yet again, with more instructions about how future generations are to mark this occasion, and we twice more hear a particular refrain:
And you shall explain to your child on that day, it is because of what YHVH did for me when I went free from Egypt (Ex. 13:8)
And when, in times to come, a child of yours asks you, “Mah zot? – What is this?” you shall reply “It was with a mighty hand that YHVH brought us out of Egyptian bondage.” (Ex. 13:14)
Three times in the midst of the telling a voice reaches out beyond the story and tells us that this is our story, forever. Three times we are instructed to perform a special ritual to reenact and remember our salvation, so that our children’s curiosity will be piqued and they will ask us, “What is this?” Three times we are told to tell them the story, so that it will become their story to tell again to the next generation.
The ancient Rabbis took to heart the essential instruction of the Torah, and fashioned a ritual called the Passover Seder that enshrined the asking of questions as the central theme: What makes this night different from all other nights? The Rabbis elaborated on the Torah’s command, and created an entire meal and celebration dedicated to hearing our ancient story of liberation, eliciting questions about it, and expanding and expounding on the many layers of what it might mean to be free.
The framers of the Passover Haggadah also knew that to tell a story well, you had to understand the developmental stage of the listener. There is one way to tell a story to a 3 year old and another way to tell, say, an 8 year old. There is one way to engage a rebellious kid, and another way to keep the attention of a curious one. The Rabbis called these “The Four Children” and placed them in the Haggadah prior to the section called Magid, the actual telling of the story. I am convinced that the Rabbis understood the Seder to be a pedagogical feast, and by placing the descriptions of the four different learners just before the story itself, were encouraging us to be thoughtful teachers of our most central story.
How did the Rabbis come up with four children, rather than five, or ten? They looked in Torah for every instance in which we are commanded to teach our children about Passover, and found exactly four: 3 times in this week’s portion, Bo, and once more in Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy: 6:20). From the variety of tones in these passages, they inferred the character of the different listeners.
They find the chacham – the curious and engaged learner – in Deuteronomy: When, in times to come, your child asks you, “What is the meaning of all of these laws and practices that YHVH has commanded us?” (Deut 6:20) This child asks for the details, and so you should gear your discourse to their level of interest.
They find the rebellious child in the subtle emphasis of, And when your children ask you, “What is the meaning of this ritual to you?” (Ex. 12:26) The Rabbis consider their (and our) dilemma in passing on the meaning and import of Passover: how do we engage the one who actively wants to exclude themselves from the “we” who are the sacred keepers of our story? (You may recall that the Rabbis employ biting sarcasm in their response – not necessarily the best pedagogy, but you never know!)
The simple child who simply asks “Mah zot” – “What is this?” (Ex. 13:14) is looking around the Seder table at all the special foods and is ready to hear a good story. And the little one, the one who is not even able to ask, is inferred in the passage, “You shall explain to your child on that day…” (Ex. 13:8), because it is the one instance out of the four in which it does not mention that children are asking anything. I like to think that with the little one you chop charoset, hide the matzah, and sing the songs…
The Rabbis studied the odd structure of our Torah portion – instructions for the future observance of Passover inserted repeatedly into the telling of the story – and properly understood that our ancestors wanted us to keep telling this tale. It is “The Story of How We Became a People.” We need to tell it well, and know who our listeners are. It is meant to inform our bond to one another as Jews, to give us faith in the face of despair, and to continually reinforce our sensitivity to the disenfranchised and our appreciation of human freedom and dignity. There are many commandments in the Torah, and as human circumstances have changed over the centuries, many of these commandments have naturally fallen by the wayside. The commandment to mark Passover, thank God, is still with us; after more than 3,000 years we are still celebrating our Feast of Freedom, and may it continue.