Bo: It’s All For The Children
Some time ago I was driving to school and my daughter, then only five, saw a homeless man sitting on a bench. She asked me, “Abba, why is that man sitting there?” I said, “that man has no home, my love.” “Can we invite him over to our home?” She said.
I took a deep breath. Here is my child asking the only question that makes sense to her. Out the window as we crept by in traffic was an elderly man, disheveled and broken. She saw pain and suffering and wondered how we can help.
As the teacher and writer Angela Schwindt said, “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”
Teaching our children is the greatest and most difficult commandment. Every action we take- they watch. Every decision we make – they watch. Every smile, nod and scowl – they watch.
Our children learn from us about what is important and valuable. They learn from us what is truly sacred. To protect a nation you need riflemen. To protect a civilization, you need teachers.
This is clearest in this week’s Torah portion, Bo. We find the Israelites in the throws of the Exodus story. God is casting down plague after plague against the Egyptians culminating in our going out from slavery for the first time in generations as a new nation in the world.
Yet, at its center Parashat Bo, on three separate occasions, the massive epic of the liberation of Jewish people fades to the background. In place of the roaring theomachy are the questions of children and the commandment to teach them:
In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’ (Ex. 13: 14)
And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” (Ex. 12: 26-27)
On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Ex. 13: 8)
Three times the focus of the story shifts from the national drama of the Exodus to the intimate conversation between parents and children. If we add the commandment found in Deuteronomy, three times the parent is asked by the child to explain our lives to them. You might recognize some of these quotes from the Passover Haggadah. There, they embody the trope of the “four sons” (or children) who instigate the telling of the Exodus story.
On a deeper level, this change of scenery from the war between the army of Pharaoh and the Host of God to the loving conversations of a dedicated parent show just how deep education is as a sacred value in the Jewish tradition. God is not only found in the fury of the apocalypse, God is found in the relationship between fathers, mothers and their children. This is one of Judaism’s greatest gifts to the world. Education is sacred. Learning is sacred. Teaching is sacred. This is a theology – not just a philosophy- of education. God is in the transmission of tradition and values, not just in the use of brute power.
So great is the commandment of education that it outweighs even the respect one shows to our parents. The Torah commands us only twice to respect our father and mother, but five times to teach our children. One may say prayers without a minyan, leshem chinuch, “for the sake of education. One may let children read from the Torah, “for the sake of education.” We act silly on Purim, “for the sake of education.” We run our Passover seder “for the sake of education.” In Jewish life, there is nothing more sacred than taking something that is out in the world and putting inside the soul of another. As the old Yiddish proverb says, “Ala far kinder” It is “all for the children.”
As I took another deep breath, my daughter said to me, “We take care of him because we were once slaves in Egypt, and now that we are not slaves, we help people who are not yet free. Right, abba?”
All I could say was, “Amen”