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Transmitting a Heritage Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Our Grandparent’s Circle group has been meeting on Sunday afternoons this winter. These are adults who get together to talk about transmitting their Jewish heritage to their grandchildren. Some are very involved and committed Jews, attending services regularly and participating in the life of the community, but others are in the sanctuary only for the High Holidays and don’t belong to any congregation. One is a non-Jew who has been married to a Jewish woman for over 30 years and together they have raised three Jewish children. Yet for each of them, in their own particular way, passing Judaism on to another generation is important enough that they have signed up for this group.

In a Torah portion with lots of dramatic action scenes, Zoey, you chose to read the part which talks about Passover being celebrated by generations in the future. In particular the passage says: When your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite? You shall say, It is the Passover sacrifice to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.”

There are many places in the tradition where it says, vehhigadetah levinecha, “And you shall say to your child”, but to me, what’s noteworthy here, is that the adult speaks only in response to a question being asked.

So how do we get the younger generation to ask the question?

The Passover Seder was deigned to provoke questions from the children present by having the adults do some strange things- eating unleavened bread that resembles cardboard and vegetables bitter enough to bring tears to the eyes, dipping greens into salt water, and then dipping marror into charoset. Though in our modern seder some of these come late in the telling, well after the four questions, originally, in the order designed by Rabban Gamliel, these actions were done at the beginning of the seder to get the children’s attention. In fact the Baskin Reform Haggadah published in 1974 suggests restoring that order. I recommend you try it. Tasting the matzah, marror and Haroset before the telling of the story, not only gives people something to munch on, but makes the four questions flow a lot more naturally.

But you can’t always eat weird things and play with your food to get your children or grandchildren’s attention.  Are other ways as well of prompting questions so as to create those teachable moments?

In her D’var Torah, Zoey  referred to the practice of hiddur mitzvah of making Jewish ritual objects lovely to look at. In fact part of the curriculum in our grandparent’s circle is encouraging awareness of Jewish objects as opportunities to elicit questions. When a child sees a funny little box on the mantle post at the doorway that prompts a questions. When they see a special cloth over bread or a specially designed cup, twisted candle, or a picture on the wall, that can prompt questions as well. A piece of art is not a lecture or a book, but it is a form of communication. Archeologists have found many ancient synagogue floors with beautiful and complicated mosaic pictures. One theory is that for those who did not read, this was a way of communicating the stories and teachings of Judaism. Certainly we have reason to believe that the art of medieval churches functioned in this way. Art can instruct in a way that is accessible to everyone.

In the Bible there are 4 different passages in which an adult is urged to answer the question of a child. Our Passover Haggadah re-orders these, putting the passage from Deuteronomy first, and going out of sequence with the three passages from the book of Exodus, to create what we know of today as the 4 sons, wise and wicked, simple and unable to ask. Each one of them gets their own, different answer, an answer directed to their concerns and way of understanding.  

As we in our own times long to answer the questions of the next generation, let us not forget the power that art can have in raising those questions, and in imparting our culture in ways that go beyond words.

Zoey, for how many years in Hebrew school have we worked on learning the Ashrei that long alphabetical poem from the book of Psalms. It has something to say on this issue as well. Dor LeDor yeshabach maasechah ugvurotecha yagidu- from one generation to the next, we tell the stories and pass on our heritage.


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