In memory of my younger son, Niot, seven years after his death at the age of 20, during Pesach. From the Pesach 2018 issue of Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet of the religious peace movement, Oz Veshalom.
“Take, for example, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony,” says Lahav Shani, the twenty-nine-year-old conductor who was recently chosen to lead the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “It may well be the work that the orchestra has played more times than any other. The musicians can perform it in their sleep. But, precisely when you play something so much, there are things that become routine, and I saw in the music the possibilities of a different balance and a somewhat different point of view” (Ha’aretz, Galeria Shishi, Feb. 16, 2018).
The same can be said for the Pesach Haggadah. Many of us could practically recite it in our sleep. That’s why we need a young “Lahav Shani” on Seder night to freshen up the all-too-familiar material that the traditional Haggadah provides.
The Haggadah places the commandment “and you shall tell your children” in the center of the Seder. After a few preliminary matters, the Maggid section offers the midrash of the Four Children as a prologue to the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We often think of this precept of telling the children the story as going in a single direction, from parents to children. But on closer examination, the dialogue with the four children is reciprocal, because the children, each according to his or her character, determine how the story is told.
Of the Four Sons (or Daughters), the simple one plays a special role. (In ancient versions of the Haggadah he is called the “stupid son,” but that was changed to “simple,” for good reason.) The two children who pose their questions before him, the wise and wicked children, treat the commandments involved in celebrating Pesach as facts, as well-known routines. “What does the wise one say? ‘What are these testimonies and statutes and laws that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ What does the wicked one say? ‘What is this service to you?’” These two children, like their parents, have experienced the Seder time and again. It is not new. But the third child asks as if he is seeing it all for the first time: “What is this?”
The simple child’s question, and the answer he is given, are taken from Exodus 13:14–15, from a passage in which the Children of Israel are given the command to redeem the first-born. The third child is surprised at the special treatment given to the first-born. His parents explain that it is one of the ways of remembering the Exodus.
In his fascinating book We Did Not Know What Became of Him: Literature and Meaning in the Talmudic Tale, Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky notes that this same passage from Exodus served as the basis of a Rabbinic story about a case in which the fitness of a set of tefilin was called into doubt (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b):
Rami bar Tamri, who is Rami bar Dikli
found that [the letter] vav in the word vayahrog [on the parchment inside the tefilin] had a crack running through it [such that the vav could be mistaken for a yod, changing the word into passive mood]
He came before R. Zeira
who said, Bring a small child who is neither wise nor stupid.
If he reads it as vayaharog, [the tefilin] are fit to be used. If not [if he reads vayehareg], it is unfit.
This verse was not chosen at random for this story. It from one of the passages inscribed on the parchment that are placed in tefilin. The first letter of the word “vayaharog” has a fine white line running through it. Are the tefilin fit to be used—that is, do the verses on the parchment say what they are meant to say? If the crack changes the vav into a yod and the word from active (he kills) to passive (he is killed), the word will not indicate that God killed all the first-born in Egypt, but that God was killed in Egypt, which would be heresy. How can we tell whether the letter vav has turned into a yod? Clearly, anyone who is well-acquainted with the verse, who reads it year after year, will read it almost automatically, without taking note of the small change in the letter. After all, that reader can recite the verse in her sleep. A child who barely knows how to read may make a mistake simply because he does not know the alphabet well. Thus, when doubt rises, one does not want the opinion of a wise person, which is what one would seek out on any other question of ritual and comprehension. It calls for a child, a simple one—that is, one who knows how to read, but who is coming to the text for something like the first time.
As Marienberg-Milikowsky notes, “The adult, the wise person, abdicates the authority granted him from ancient times, the authority to interpret, explain, and know, and leaves it in the hands of a child, who will reveal … whether God kills or is killed.”
Those who celebrate the Seder with young children include customs that are aimed at prompting the children to ask simple questions, questions of the “what is this all about?” sort. These include suddenly clearing the table and sending the children outside dressed as the Israelites leaving Egypt. Such actions are meant to surprise the children, and to cause their parents to tell the story of leaving Egypt as if for the first time, with “a different balance and a somewhat different point of view.”
At the beginning of the month of Adar, at my synagogue, Kehilat Yedidya, we held a communal Friday night meal with asylum-seekers who fled Eritrea. Ilana and I shared a table with four young women who fled their homes as teenagers, about a decade ago. They fled in haste, the minute a way out presented itself, in the middle of the night, without even saying goodbye to their parents and siblings. The stories they told were remarkably similar to the ones our grandparents told us about their exoduses from Ukraine and Iraq. All these stories are really part of a single Exodus story that has continued over all the generations since the Children of Israel left Egypt.
As we lack our own third child, Niot, who by his very nature came to each Seder as if he were celebrating it for the first time, the stories of these four women will play that role at our Seder this year. We will not change a word of the Haggadah, just as Lahav Shani does not change a single note of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Thanks to them, we will be able, as Shani says of the players of the Israel Philharmonic, “take a fresh look … at a work we know so well.”