Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Tzav 5754
March 26, 1994 14 Nisan 5754
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
My father died in 1982, some five weeks before Passover. Till then I had never conducted a seder, except for the two years I spent as an army chaplain at Fort Dix, New Jersey and Taigu, South Korea. The custom in the Schorsch family since time immemorial had been to celebrate the seders in the home of my parents. Each Passover my older sister and I, with spouses and children, would happily converge on that sacred space to hear our father sing, read, and talk his way through the Haggadah and to savor our mother's delicious Passover menu. My mother died the following year and my sister and I, awash in memories, are now the older generation. Ten years later our families are larger and more widely dispersed and the rendezvous changes, but the tradition of an inclusive family seder has not unraveled. I have assumed my father's mantle.
I will share with you but one of his insights into the Haggadah. He was as fascinated by human nature as by the language of God. And so he preferred to see in the four children of the Haggadah — the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask — not four different personality types, but the stages of our own individual development. We tend to pass from innocence to acceptance to rebellion to appreciation. Our personalities are a composite, with each part prevailing for a time. How often do we tell ourselves in moments of exasperation that our child is just going through a stage! Arrested development is what we fear most. Thus in the midst of an elaborate ritual devoted to socializing the young, we pause briefly to reflect on the complexity of human nature.
The haftarah for Shabbat ha-Gadol primes us to see the seder as an instance of family education. For the prophetic reading for this final shabbat just prior to Passover, the rabbis chose the messianic prophecy of Malachi which concludes
So, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile fathers with sons and sons with their fathers, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction (Mal. 3:23-24).The choice of haftarah is driven by the belief that the redemption from Egypt, which we are about to celebrate, foreshadows the ultimate redemption that will bring history as we know it to an end.
What intrigues me in this passage, however, is the focus on reconciling the generations. Malachi seems to suggest that the absence of such concord is the major impediment toward progress and peace. To achieve it will take a modification of human nature. Acquired traits are not inherited. Knowledge and wisdom need to be learned afresh by every newborn child. Civilization hangs by a thread as each generation is determined to make its own mistakes, deaf to the lessons of experience. Education is the strategy by which humanity desperately tries to overcome the natural recalcitrance of the young. The world abounds with people who set themselves apart: "What does this ritual mean to you? To `you' and not to `him'." Had they been in Egypt, to paraphrase the Haggadah, they would not have been redeemed.The centrality of learning in Judaism is a measure of our messianic longing. And its first and primary locus is neither the school nor the synagogue, but the home. That is the lesson of the seder, an exercise in family education ritually choreographed. With the Haggadah as our lesson plan, we use stories, songs, pictures, and games to induct our children into the grand drama of Jewish history. The seder is meant to be participatory, creative, and joyful. Jewish education is too vital to wait till school. As parents, we are our children's first teachers, assigned the task to raise them Jewishly from the ground up. Continuity begins at home. Like officers in the Israeli army, we must lead our charges with the cry, "Follow me!"
But most Jewish parents are unprepared to do that. Jewishly speaking ,the family is the most attenuated institution in American Jewish life. According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, while almost 62% of the respondents in the core Jewish population usually or always attended a seder, 62% also reported that shabbat candles were never lit in their households. 80% reported no longer using separate dishes for meat and milk products, a clearer index of kashrut observance than the purchase of kosher meat. Similarly, only 33% indicated any synagogue affiliation, while only 28% reported belonging to a Jewish organization other than a synagogue. These dismal statistics hardly reflect an ambience suited to cultivating in our children a lifelong attachment to Judaism marked by pride and practice.
To counter this abdication on the home front, we adult Jews need to muster just a tad of the willpower I witnessed recently in a Conservative synagogue on a shabbat morning. I had received the seventh aliyah to the Torah. When I finished, to my amazement, the table on which the Torah scroll lay was lowered. After the recitation of the half-kaddish, the gabbai called a young woman in a wheelchair, crippled and contorted, to read the haftarah. As she struggled to say the blessings over the Torah, I could not believe that she would actually read the unusually long haftarah for that shabbat. But I couldn't have been more wrong. Though the young woman had cerebral palsy and brought out each word only with intense effort, she recited the entire prophetic portion in a flawless Hebrew. No longer master of her own body, she had fully mastered the reading of Hebrew. The silence of the congregation quivered with compassion and discomfort. And when she finally finished, it erupted spontaneously with a hearty cry of "yashekoah," "may your strength be made straight," (that is, blessed with renewal), filling a synagogue commonplace with searing literal immediacy.
To me, the haftarah of this courageous young woman was an unforgettable testimony to the power of the human will. It was not her first. In fact, she is a Hebrew school teacher and about to be married. Despite incredible odds, she has made Judaism the bedrock of her tormented life. As for us, to whom things come so easily, are we free to do less? If we made God the refuge and shelter of our lives, would not our children happily dwell there as well?
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,