At the Passover Seder meal, the central purpose is to tell the story of the Exodus in Egypt.
A special book called the Haggadah or the Narrrative is read throughout the evening. The book has rabbinic commentaries and biblical texts as well as songs that highlight the biblical account of the Exodus but also highlights the meaning of being a stranger or a slave and the desire for freedom. Ultimately Haggadah tells how God orchestrated our release from bondage. By the end the Seder meal, families celebrate a bright future for the Jewish people by singing a song which says, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
The original purpose of the Seder meal is to engage the young people to ask questions and to learn about their heritage as if they, too, were leaving Egypt. The ritual begins with a young person asking at the festive table, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” From that point on, the Seder and the telling of the Narrative concentrate on answering the child’s question.
How do we imbue in our children, regardless of the faith tradition, an appreciation of memory and connection to the roots of their religious traditions?
Young people are pulled in many different directions. Today, technology tools take them to imaginary battlefields and other sorts of Internet games. They are fluent in blending the virtual world from the internet with their own sense of time and place. Yet, does history get lost in the clicking from one game or website to the other?
In the Jewish tradition, religious identity must balance between the past and the present lives they lead. Is that not the same for a young person from any other faith tradition? Their sense of community, not just in a school environment, but in the broader context of being with people who share their religious heritage and history is critical toward solidifying their identity and values.
Some say it is not healthy or desirable to remind our young of the past, especially when it is painful. Religion has to be positive and hopeful.
Religion represents redemption and inspiration. I am not, however, sure that this approach serves their best interest in thinking about what kids need as compared to what they want from us.
Children need their parents, clergy and religious school teachers to reinforce the principle that religious identity requires a memory of their history. Will exposing our youth to visual episodes of historic suffering or events of violence, even with the proper guidance, traumatize them?
Life is joyful and it is also about struggle.
Life has suffering and it is part of being human. In Judaism, we have much to celebrate and, sadly, much to commemorate that is painful. The identity of what it means to be Jewish depends on striking a balance between both aspects of history. Don’t other religions have similar experiences?
Many religions have historic events that compel us to face unpleasant and spiritually challenging issues in our past. Do we underestimate our children’s ability to handle the painful times of their faith tradition? Why do we shield them from these truths? Yet, we see no harm in allowing them to be exposed to so much violence in television or movies and on the video games on the Internet?
Young people are resilient, and we should have more faith in them if we teach them the tales of their heritage where there is human suffering and the ability to cope with and transcend it.
Once I was part of an advisor team that led several hundred teens to Threisenstadt, concentration camp outside of Prague. We entered the camp, walked through the crematorium and held a memorial service afterward. Ultimately our group flew to Israel and celebrated the modern day exodus from Egypt, that is, out of Europe after World War II.
Were our kids ruined or traumatized so that they would never want to be Jewish again? On the contrary, they emerged with more conviction as to who they were as Jews.
Many of us belong to religions who have endured great suffering from war. In Northern Ireland, Africa, the Middle East and even in America there are examples of violence and prejudice. It goes on even today.
Our young will learn to protect themselves, their faith traditions and the larger society when they learn not only what our religious ideals are, but also accept the price many have paid to keep their religions alive in the face of untold suffering.
I would like to believe that youth will see how they can make a difference in the world for good when they are exposed with proper guidance to the struggle for freedom and justice.