These past weeks, our inboxes and newsfeeds have daily been inundated with updates and articles about the coronavirus pandemic. Many beautiful pieces have been written recently, offering Jewish framing and wisdom to help contextualize this uncertain time.
Yet, I also find comfort in the ancient rhythm of our calendar. Our holidays will come and go, despite this necessary social distancing. But since we can’t gather in the way we might be used to, perhaps there is some value in exploring through study the place of community and its members to our festival observances.
With Passover just around the corner, this seems like a good time to reflect on who typically gathers at our tables and the roles those individuals play.
Jewish social research has pointed out that for many, if not most, American Jews across the diverse spectrum of observance, Passover ranks highest among the favorite ritual experiences.
It’s easy to see why. Passover, for the most part, takes place in our homes surrounded by loved ones and friends. It is often intergenerational and highly customizable, personal and individualized.
At the foundation of this holiday is storytelling, sharing the narrative of our people and passing it down to the next generation. It is Jewish pedagogy at its best, and these themes, particularly that of l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), are emotional and often at the heart of Jewish identity for many of us.
It’s uplifting to hear those young voices sing the “Mah Nishtanah,” the Four Questions, as they ask us — and thus somewhat paradoxically remindus — why we are here, why we are doing anyof this at all.
In the Talmud, in Masechet Pessachim which deals extensively with the laws and practices of Passover, is one of my favorite passages in all rabbinic literature. In the middle of a rather dense conversation regarding the wine we drink during the holiday, the rabbis begin to discuss, somewhat tangentially, the importance of young people, of children, teenagers and students, and their presence at our seder tables.
As the executive director of 4Front Baltimore, our Jewish community’s teen initiative, you can imagine that this section immediately garners my attention and interest.
“Regarding the wine,” the text teaches, “young people are not obligated to drink it. Instead, we should give them little snacks, such as parched corn and nuts throughout the seder, in order that they should remain awake and inquire as to the reason for this festivity.” (Bavli: Pesachim 109a)
And then it gets really interesting.
Rabbi Akiva, the text goes on, would take this practice one step further and not merely pass out the corn and nuts but rather he would throw it at the kids! (I’ll leave it up to you whether to try this at home!) He would do this, says the Talmud, to shock them in the hopes that a youth might turn to him and say, “Hey! Why did you do that?” which would provide him the opportunity to respond, “Because once upon a time, our ancestors were slaves in the land of Egypt, now let me tell you that story.”
And thus he would fulfill the commandment found in the Torah, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Eternal One did for me when I went forth from Egypt.’”
So the Talmud seems to argue that the presence of youth is for our benefit. We need them to ask the questions so that we can fulfill our obligation. Compelling, yes. But I’d like to try and go a little deeper, to push back ever so slightly against the wisdom of our sages.
Is it solely for us and our sense of obligation to aid Jewish continuity, or is there not a further reason to justify and celebrate the presence of youth at our communal tables?
A New Jewish Narrative
At 4Front, we say that our mission, our “why,” is to help teenagers actualize their relevance to our Jewish community’s present and its future.
When we think about educating young people, creating unique programs and experiences that will touch their souls and increase their knowledge, offer them opportunities to experiment with leadership and grow in their Jewish identity, it’s not just because we know we have an obligation to pass something down to them. It’s not just because one day they will be Jewish adults and then we will invite them to take the reins. It’s not just because we know that Jewish history, ritual, culture and values can be helpful tools as they navigate this extremely difficult road that is adolescence in 2020.
All of these things are true, and yet we also do it because we know that we adults are not the only ones with a claim to the Jewish narrative. Teenagers have one, too, and sometimes they need us to help them formally take hold of it.
As much as we have to pass down to those who will come after, there are also a few things they have to pass up to us, and though we may not be commanded by Torah to listen in the same way as we are commanded to teach, we serve these young people and our Jewish community well when we do.
Every day at my job, I am amazed by what I learn from our 14-, 15-, 16-year-old participants and their deep understanding and ability to articulate why Judaism and Jewish life are different for them than it was or it is for me. Through our 4Front programming, I have learned way more than I’ve taught and been humbled not just by the obligation to pass down wisdom to a generation that needs it so deeply, but also by the opportunities to observe how they apply that wisdom.
So perhaps our young people are not, as the Rabbis might have suggested, merely a means to an end, a helpful tool to aid in the fulfillment of our adult obligations, but rather they are a vital element in the eternal evolution of the Jewish people.
How might our perception of seder rituals change if we imagined them as a path to empower kids not only to see themselves as part of the Jewish story but as the essential authors, the creators and shapers of the next chapter?
I wish you everyone a Zissen Pesach, a happy and meaningful Passover. May we be inspired, even in this moment of social distancing, to make a metaphorical seat this year at our seder and our Jewish communal tables for those of the next generation.
Rabbi Dena Shaffer is executive director of 4Front, Baltimore’s open channel to high school-aged Jewish teens who want to take charge of their future.