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Passover 1 5779-2019

“The Passover Seder–Focus on the Children”
(Revised and updated from Passover 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As is the usual practice on all Shabbatot that coincide with Jewish holidays, the Torah portion for this coming Shabbat will be replaced with a specially selected Torah portion concerning the upcoming holiday. Consequently, this week’s message will focus on the festival of Passover.

The Passover סֵדֶר–“Seder,” which literally means “order,” is certainly an “orderly” event, but it surely has some very unusual customs: We cover the מַצּוֹתmatzot, uncover the matzot; we put the seder plate on the table, then we remove it; we dip parsley, greens or some other vegetable into salt water and we dip מָרוֹרmarror (bitter herb) in חֲרֹסֶתcharoset (a mixture of wine, apples, cinnamon, etc.); we hide the אֲפִיקוֹמָןafikomen, encouraging our children to steal it, and reward them for returning it; מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּהMah Nishtana is sung by the youngest child; we also read about the four children; we open the door for Elijah the Prophet; we sing all sorts of fun songs that are all quite child-oriented. Clearly, the Passover Seder, with all its historical and intellectual content, is an evening that places unusual emphasis on children.

What is the origin of this child-centered focus? Let us review the Passover story itself. Even before the enslavement of the Jews began, Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-21) instructed the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all the newborn Jewish male babies. According to tradition, these midwives were actually Jochebed and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister. They claimed that they were unable to fulfill Pharaoh’s order because Jewish women were healthy–they took all sorts of birthing classes, Lamaze, and natural child birth lessons. Therefore, even before the midwives arrived, the Jewish babies were born, too late for them to be killed.

When that attempt to harm the Jews didn’t work, Pharaoh’s ensuing decree was even more radical. He commanded that all newborn male children were to be thrown into the river. In Exodus 1:22, Pharaoh declares, כָּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד, הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ , which literally means all male children, whether Egyptian or not, should be cast into the river. Pharaoh’s words are truly predictive of how future anti-Semites would behave. Pharaoh’s hatred of the Jewish people was so rabid, that he was prepared to have all the Egyptian male children cast into the Nile, as long as he could make certain that the Jewish male children were drowned as well. Hitler did the same when he diverted the trains to transport Jews to the extermination camps, at a time when they were desperately needed to fight the war on the front lines.

The Midrash further develops Pharaoh’s obsessive hatred of Jewish children by declaring that Pharaoh had been stricken with leprosy, and in order to heal himself, he bathed in the blood of Jewish children. A complementary Midrash says that if the Israelite slaves failed to produce the declared quota of bricks, Jewish children were plastered into the walls, to make up for the shortcoming.

According to the Talmud, Sotah 12a, the net result of all this hatred directed toward Jewish children, was that the Jewish men, led by Amram, Moses’ father, felt that they could no longer continue to bring Jewish children into the world. Amram, who was the leader of the Jewish people at the time, therefore separated from his wife, Jochebed, and all of the Jewish men followed suit.

Miriam, who was then six years old, said to Amram, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed that the male children not live. You are decreeing that both male and female children never be born. Pharaoh is a wicked man, his decree will not be fulfilled, but you are a righteous person; your decree will be fulfilled. And not only that, but Pharaoh’s decree is that the children shouldn’t live in this world. You are decreeing that the children shouldn’t have a life in this world or the World to Come!”

When Amram heard this, he regretted his decision and told Miriam to inform the Sanhedrin, the court of Jewish law, that he changed his mind and would reunite with his wife. Miriam said, “The mouth that prohibited should be the mouth that permits.” Amram then went to the court of Jewish law and publicly proclaimed his reunion with his wife.

Even when Pharaoh eventually allows the Jewish people to worship for three days, he insists, (Exodus 10:11), that the people may only do so without their children.

We see that Pharaoh’s focus on the children was really an attempt to undo Jewish continuity. He knew that without “little Jews,” there would be no future for the Jewish people. That is why the central focus of our Passover seder are the Jewish children. Not only must the children be fully involved, they are to be encouraged to lead at least parts of the seder so that everyone can appreciate the important role they play in the Passover story.

On Passover night, every Jew is a child, and every Jew is a parent. Every Jew is a student, and every Jew is a teacher. We actually switch roles, back and forth in order to nurture and ensure the continuity of the next generation.

Our Torah, in the first paragraph of the Shema prayer, clearly states (Deut. 6:7) וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ–parents have a direct responsibility to educate their children. The primary and fundamental obligation devolves upon the parent, not a substitute, not a hired teacher to serve as the model for the child. That is why it is vital that the parental model be a deeply involved and positive model.

The first paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5), speaks of וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ ,-–that love of G-d can really only be transmitted in a loving household–in a household where G-d is loved. Only after that, does the second paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 11:13-21), speak of accountability and responsibility. However, if only accountability is underscored, then our children will be left with strong negative feelings about G-d, and we will surely have to face the consequences. As the Psalmist says (100:2), עִבְדוּ אֶת השׁם בְּשִׂמְחָה , Worship G-d through happiness!

There is no more appropriate time or place for happiness, full, unrestrained happiness, than at the Passover seder.

May you and your loved ones be favored with a חַג כָּשֵׁר וְשָׂמֵחַ , a kosher and joyous Passover, and may your happiness overflow like the waters of the Red Sea!

May you be blessed.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 19th and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 20th and 21st. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 25th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 26th and 27th.