I am “right-of-center” when it comes to politics about Israel. I firmly believe that Israel has unquestioned legal, moral and historic right to live as a free, independent, democratic Jewish state, and that the borders of such state should include the holiest city for Jews, the united city of Jerusalem as its capital for the previous reasons, as well as based on fundamental security needs.
This year, I had the fortune of celebrating my Peach seder in Jerusalem. My hosts were liberal friends that believe that the eastern part of the city – a few hundred feet from where we ate the festive dinner – should become the capital of a new state of Palestine. I was not sure how this fact would impact the seder: how would the meal remain a celebration and educational for the dozen children, while not ignoring the momentous 50-year jubilee of the united city without a contentious debate?
The Community Obligation
I tried to stay on safe ground.
Before Pesach each year, I purchase a new Haggadah to share some new thoughts at the seder. Knowing of the attendees at this year’s meal, I decided to buy Erica Brown’s “Seder Talk,” as I considered that her essays would appeal to the more progressive crowd (compared to past year selections of R. Soloveitchik, R. Lamm, Lord Sachs, Sfas Emes among others).
One of Brown’s essays discussed the basis for the seder’s “Four Sons.” She considered that the bible wrote in four different places the need to educate one’s children about the exodus from Egypt, and each mention correlated to a different type of child:
- Exodus 12:26-27: And when your children ask you “What is this service to you?” you will say, “It is a Pesach offering for the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt while He struck the Egyptians, but saved those in our homes.”
- Exodus 13:8: And you shall explain to your son on that day, “Because of this the Lord acted for me when I came out of Egypt.”
- Exodus 13:14: And when, in time to come, your son asks you saying, “What is this?” you shall say to him, “With a string hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the grip of slavery.”
- Deuteronomy 6:20-21: When in time your children ask you, “What re the testimonies, the statutes and laws, that the Lord our God commanded you?” you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord our God brought us out of there with a strong hand.”
The four different types of children in the Haggadah are the hacham (wise son), the rasha (evil son), the tam (simple son), and the she’eino yo’dea lish’ol (the one that doesn’t know how to ask). Brown wrote that the rabbis believed that the role of the parent is to explain to each child according to that child’s abilities. There are “four different recipients, whose learning needs vary. All must be told the story. All must learn it and be able to transmit it.”
Brown continued that the mission to tell the story of the Exodus actually extends beyond parental responsibility. The Jerusalem Talmud used an alternative term for the “tam,” the simpleton, instead calling that son a “tipesh,” a stupid child. Brown said that “the child of the Jerusalem Talmud is the child with limited mental capacity…. This child is a child of not only the family but of our entire community.” It is not only the responsibility of the parent to educate their own children, but in certain circumstances, it is also the obligation to assist others raising those kids. To make an important adjustment to the words of Hillary Clinton – it does not “take a village” to raise children – it is the responsibility of each parent to rear their own. However, there may be extraordinary circumstances in which the broader community should be involved in educating and raising a child with special needs.
I opted to end my comments there, as the reception at the seder was lukewarm. I do not think I won fans with terms for children of “stupid” and “mentally challenged,” even though the remarks were from Erica Brown herself. Had I continued with some extended thoughts of my own about community, it would have surely gone downhill.
The Community Declaration
Shortly after the description of the four sons, the Haggadah quotes and analyzes a different selection from the bible.
- Deuteronomy 26: 5-8: [Then you shall declare before the Lord your God:] “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.
The Haggadah uses many pages to expound on these biblical verses, however, it does not give the context for the long history leading up to the exodus.
This declaration in Deuteronomy is ordered by God at the time of bikurim, the bringing of the first fruits in Jerusalem.
- Deuteronomy 26: 1-2: When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name
God demanded that the story of leaving Egypt be repeated in the chosen place of the chosen land for the chosen people: at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in the heart of the Jewish holy land.
Nachmanides (1194-1270), also known as the Ramban considered the rationale of the bikurim commandment. Why would an offering of first fruits in the Jewish Temple be accompanied with the history leaving Egypt?
The Ramban noted that bikurim is ONLY made in public in Jerusalem; such an offering cannot be made on an individual basis. The personal declaration of thanks for the riches of the holy land is made before the entire community. The acknowledgement of the gifts of the holy land began with the exodus from Egypt, and is something that each person must publicly declare: my gift of fruit is simply a portion of our collective gifts: we are a nation that was collectively brought from Egypt to Jerusalem. The offered fruit is really the nation’s fruit, just as the freedom from slavery was a national liberation.
The bible and Haggadah are clear in the command to educate one’s own children, and Erica Brown noted the need of the community to also educate other children in the community about our freedom from slavery. We stand as part of the community helping individuals learn the lesson of God’s gifts.
But we also have a need to stand before the community to acknowledge God’s gifts to that same community. Those gifts extend beyond our freedom from slavery, to the gift of the holy land and its produce. And that declaration is to be made in Jerusalem on the Jewish Temple Mount.
Being part of the community means helping those in the community that need assistance. And that same community is also a witness to our public declarations as we internalize the message that our freedom and fruits of the holy land are gifts from God.
When left-wing radicals like the New Israel Fund rewrite the Haggadah from “Next Year in Jerusalem” to “Next Year in Palestine and Israel,” they are rewriting the centrality of God’s gifts and the role of our community. In doing so, have they rejected God’s gift and being part of our community? Or must the community not give up, and teach this wayward son (or tipesh) as well?
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