Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Education > The Faith of Jewish Homes

The Faith of Jewish Homes

Seder night teaches us the foundations of our faith, but its study does not take place in the study hall, in the manner of rabbi and student, but seated around the banquet table in the manner of father and son. Pesach is the festival of a faith we learn at home.

Nissan 5781; March 2021

Pesach celebrates the salvation of our homes. As the festival’s name implies, God literally “passed over” the homes of the Jews in Egypt. We were redeemed as family units.

As we mention in festival prayers, Pesach is “the time of our freedom.” It is also the “festival of faith,” the time when we pass on our basic Emunah from generation to generation. Indeed, the matzah is dubbed nahama dimehemnuta [the bread of faith] in kabbalistic literature. Yet the faith of Pesach we deal in a special kind of faith, one that is passed down through the home. The festival of faith is first and foremost a festival of the home. As the Torah instructs, even the Pesach offering relates to the home: “Take for yourselves a lamb for your household, a lamb for the home.”

Yet the faith of Pesach we deal in a special kind of faith, one that is passed down through the home. The festival of faith is first and foremost a festival of the home

The corona crisis, which we are slowly coming out of—depending on precisely where we find ourselves on the globe—gave us an opportunity to return to our homes and build our world of meaning from the inside out, by contrast with how we often operate, building from the outside in. Below, I will try to outline some thoughts about the internal construction of the private home, inspired by the Pesach festival.

 

Between Rabbi and Father

Religion and faith in Judaism run on two parallel paths, which we might call “ideology and narrative,” “textbook and novel,” or even “Rabbi and Father.” Both paths are vital and necessary, but it is important to distinguish between the two. This distinction can be found in the Gemara, which questions how it is that we can reference God’s commandments when reciting a beracha over a rabbinic mitzvah—an obligation whose origin is rabbinic decree rather than Torah law. One answer the Gemara suggests is based on the verse: “You shall not stray from that which you are told”—the Torah obligates us to heed rabbinic instruction so that the beracha is applicable. The second is based on a different verse: “Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders and they will instruct you.”

These answers describe two different tracks, two channels of religious observance. One is top down: The Sages teach us the Torah, handing down the bodies of knowledge as the supreme authority. We need to surrender to their rulings and accept their instruction. The second path, by contrast, does not require self-abnegation; on the contrary, it is part of a relationship that involves two parties: the son asks and his father reciprocates by answering him.

The educational channel of rabbi and student is based on a clear hierarchy: The Rabbi has access to true knowledge, while the student’s task is to listen and internalize. God is revealed to the student through his rabbi’s mediation; he does not have independent, direct access to the Truth. In the father-son channel, by contrast, things are conducted differently. Although there is still a hierarchy in the relationship, its crux is an intimate covenant. The student and the rabbi come together temporarily for a particular need (handing down knowledge), and the hierarchical relations effectively define the connection between them. By contrast, father and son are bound by an inseparable bond. Even if the son sins against his father, he will remain his son. The connection between them is formed for life and the covenant that ties them together cannot be broken. Moreover, the teaching relationship starts largely from the question of the son, from his desire to know. The son begins the learning process and drives it. He needs an answer that will satisfy him and finds it in his father.

A story, by definition, is not a body of knowledge but an experience. A story cannot be told without someone listening to it and being moved by it. It requires the listener’s involvement. Moreover, the story is not told only in words but also in deeds. The eating of the matza is also a kind of story—a story through eating

In the father-son educational channel, the relationship needs to run in both directions: the heart of the fathers towards the son and the heart of the son towards the fathers. Learning by means of this channel takes place not necessarily through words but through the connection and the experience. The father does not provide his son with an organized body of knowledge so much as with a story (the response to “Ask your father and he will tell you” is “When God bequeathed to the nations”). A story, by definition, is not a body of knowledge but an experience. A story cannot be told without someone listening to it and being moved by it. It requires the listener’s involvement. Moreover, the story is not told only in words but also in deeds. The eating of the matza is also a kind of story—a story through eating. The eating of matza is an understanding that the body experiences directly, unmediated by the intellect.

Alongside each of these paths is a path of faith. One is an “intellectual faith,” a faith in which a person arranges theological principles in the form of mental knowledge. Intellectual faith is “faith that,” meaning belief in the correctness of certain matters. In this sphere, we speak of facts and truths rather than experiences and sentiments. The second path of faith is tradition, which is largely a matter of “faith in”—a trust in things and a personal sense of affiliation with them, as Buber famously put it.

The faith passed down from father to son is not a specific body of knowledge presented in the form of dogmas in which one must believe, but rather the connection of the son to the chain of tradition through action, through existential bonds. This is the meaning of education for “belief in.” Education is mentoring, granting skills like the ability to see God in our lives and to pray to him. The observance of mitzvos is a path of faith and of worshipping God by means of human deeds. Paternal education is based on being a role model and exposing the son to a way of life. Theories and explanations matter little in this sphere. Education at home does not mean talking about values, but rather demonstrating them in their day-to-day application.

As noted, the son needs to be part of the story itself. He needs to undergo mentoring and take part in it. This mode of education cannot work by imposition from the top down; it must be a dialogue, part of a relationship involving two partners.

 

Haggadah, Aggadah, and Narrative

The missing word to our analysis thus far is “narrative.” This word has something of a negative connotation in our neck of the woods. It represents something that stands in opposition to “truth,” a story that does not necessarily emerge from the facts themselves, and which is rather a kind of myth that a group chooses to tell itself. But the term “narrative” has a positive spark to it too. The popular usage of the term implies that the story in question is not a mere tale; it is a story deeply related to myself and to my identity. It is somehow covenantal, even constitutional. The historical facts I recount are my own story, creating the “soundtrack” of my life and shaping my values and conduct.

A narrative is handed down by community, by family, and primarily by parents to children. It is passed down as an inheritance: not as theory or ideology, but as an identity built on belonging to a family, based on pride in our roots

A narrative is handed down by community, by family, and primarily by parents to children. It is passed down as an inheritance: not as theory or ideology, but as an identity built on belonging to a family, based on pride in our roots, as the Pasuk states: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the whole of the pit from which you were dug.”

Seder night shapes our narrative, the Jewish narrative. It is the night of our story, a story told sitting around the table. We do not find ourselves on Seder Night in the Beis Midrash poring over ancient volumes, but rather at home in the company of meat, wine, and matza. The food itself tells the story. The values and ideas grow and emerge from the shared seating, sometimes even without talking about them or mentioning them by name. They are present in the air, and they speak directly to the heart, unmediated by the intellect. The atmosphere and the melodies and the tastes, the smiles, the joy, and the many symbols of freedom—all these tell the story in their own persuasive way. We hardly need words, and even when they are employed, they are not words of the intellect, but rather a story, touching the heart.

 

A Father’s Salvation

One of the revolutionary discoveries of the story of our Exodus from Egypt is that God is involved in our lives—human existence and pain are important to Him and He cares, hears our cries, and intervenes to save us. This intervention, moreover, is not by means of intermediaries, but directly. God Himself. The verses do not state that God heard the prayers of the righteous, of the rabbis, or of the Sages, and then saved the Jewish People; they state that He heard our prayers, the voices of the people themselves: “And we cried out to God, the Lord of our Fathers, and God heard our cries, and He saw our poverty and our work and our strain.”

The emphasis of the words “He took us out” is that our redemption from Egypt continues to be relevant for each person, even today. They inform us that Divine concern is not limited to some historical nation, but that our connection to God is present today as it was in the past, and His concern and empathy continue to be true. The Haggadah, therefore, demands that every person “in each and every generation” is duty-bound to see himself “as though he himself departed from Egypt.”

This brings me to a well-known point: The surprising (or even bewildering) fact that Moshe Rabbeinu goes unmentioned in the entire Pesach Haggadah.

In the Torah, Moshe is at the center of the story of the Exodus, an inseparable part of the story. Indeed, Moshe is mentioned several times as the “savior” who took the People of Israel out of Egypt. At the burning bush, for instance, Hashem tells Moshe to “go, and I will send you to Pharoah, and take my people, the children of Israel from Egypt.” Moshe’s absence from the Haggadah is certainly no oversight, but rather means to emphasize the role of Hashem Himself in taking us out of Egypt: “Not by an angel, and not by a seraph, and not by a messenger.” The last part of the sentence likely means to exclude even Moshe Rabbeinu.

Pesach is the holiday of the direct encounter with God—“not by an angel, and not by a seraph, and not by a messenger.” Pesach tells us that God is involved and present and caring. And a father does not need mediation to be with his son. They dine together, after all.

If we understand seder night to be the festival of faith in the home, focusing on the father and not the rabbi, we can speculate as to why Moshe Rabbeinu was omitted from the story. Moshe, after all, is Rabbeinu—our Rabbi. He taught us Torah. But Pesach is the holiday of the direct encounter with God—“not by an angel, and not by a seraph, and not by a messenger.” Pesach tells us that God is involved and present and caring. And a father does not need mediation to be with his son. They dine together, after all.

 

Home: The Foundation of Faith

The home, family, human relationships, the covenant, loyalty; all these are the embodiment of the Divine good within us. This is the way in which God, the source of all goodness, reveals Himself in our life. Put differently, one cannot speak of God’s fatherhood, His concern for His people, His caring and mercy, His loyalty and covenant, without a living example of fatherhood, loyalty, and covenant.

Our relationship with Hashem is cultivated in the relationship between parents and children. It is homegrown.

Pesach is the festival of faith—but not the faith of the study hall (whose importance is immeasurably great yet on a different plane) but the faith of the home. A faith that we sense, internalizing it with the matza of Seder Night, a faith done rather than spoken, told rather than described. It is not an abstract, dry, and distant faith, but a narrative—our own story. It is a faith that emerges from life itself, a faith that is loyalty and connection, the relationship of man with God as a father. As such, it belongs to the field of relations between parents and children. It grows and develops in the dialogue between father and son, and it needs both sides as active partners—the questions of the son are no less crucial than the answers of the father.

Our relationship with Hashem is cultivated in the relationship between parents and children. It is homegrown.

***

I will end on a personal note: In previous years, I felt a constant tension due to the “duty to tell the story of the Exodus to children.” I wanted to do it as precisely, as correctly, and as sophisticatedly as possible. I usually had difficulty finding a way that did not make it burdensome, that kept the kids interested (the more so those with attention difficulties), and that would also allow me to “push” all the messages that needed pushing. I would devote time to practicing stunts I would use. Still, I had trouble with all of this because I failed to see how it connected to my own, mature faith.

The clear-cut, didactic messages are not the heart of the matter; they may indeed often miss the point, and they certainly cannot replace the “real thing,” which runs along different channels and can often appear more subtly in the atmosphere

Today, I understand that the issue is not the “messages” we need to convey or the tricks we use. The clear-cut, didactic messages are not the heart of the matter; they may indeed often miss the point, and they certainly cannot replace the “real thing,” which runs along different channels and can often appear more subtly in the atmosphere. Seder Night itself, the act of sitting around the table, drinking the Four Cups, eating matza and maror, and singing the songs of Haggadah and Hallel—all these serve to penetrate our children’s hearts with the “narrative” of yetzias mitzrayim, via the relationship between parent and child. This is how we achieve our aim.

The labor of faith starts with work on the delicate, two-way connection of father and son, realizing the prophecy said of Eliyahu Hanavi—a guest at Seder Night: “And he restored the hearts of fathers to sons and the hearts of sons to fathers.”

May we merit being fathers and sons.

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email