In this week’s parsha, we read of the last of the 10 plagues. Moshe is beginning to make some headway with Pharaoh as the latter begins to show some signs of fatigue after so much destruction to his land and to his people.
Before Plague 8, Pharaoh summons Moshe and Aaron and tells them, “Fine, go serve your God.” But he then tags on the request, “But who exactly is going?” Pharaoh wants to know who precisely will be participating in this religious excursion.
Now, keep in mind that Moshe didn’t originally ask for blanket freedom for the nation from their slavery. No one mentioned completely leaving Egypt and not returning. Time and again, with each warning of the plagues, God instructs Moshe to tell Pharaoh that the Israelites are to leave Egypt, “ויעבדני– to serve Me” and to leave for just a three-day holiday.
Moshe responds to Pharaoh’s query, “With our youngsters and with our elders we are going. With our sons and with our daughters, with our flock and cattle we are going – It’s a Festival of God for us!” Upon hearing this, Pharaoh suddenly rescinds his offer and tells them no dice. “You can let the men go!” and no others. And then he summarily kicks them out of his palace.
This short exchange is a telling example of how Pharaoh’s view on religion was drastically different than Moshe’s. Pharaoh couldn’t understand that anyone other than the men need to be involved in whatever rituals were to be performed. Sacrifices, serving gods, prayer – in Pharaoh’s mind it was kinda a boys night out; something the guys do when they leave behind the wife and kids as they get their spiritual infusion and maybe some other infusions whilst away. Pharaoh couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that religion is for all, and especially for the kids. Moshe stresses this very point by mentioning the children before anyone else, “With our youngsters and with our elders we are going” and then reiterates it by stating, “sons and daughters are going!”
From the very beginning Judaism has stressed that the central institution in Jewish life is not the synagogue but the home. Indeed the beginning of the parsha states so:
And God said to Moses: Go to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants – in order that I demonstrate My signs among them so that you will relate it into the ears of your children and grandchildren how I utterly mocked the Egyptians.
A crucial and integral aspect of this entire episode is that we tell our children, who will in turn tell their children, and so on in each and every generation. We do this every Pesach where the children are the focal point from the outset of the Seder. This theme of focusing on kids continues with many other holidays and Shabbat as well.
For years Jewish organizations and Federations spent much time, money, discussion and studies on the issue of ensuring Jewish continuity. Programs were created to keep Jews in the fold, but when you think about it – it ain’t rocket science. Case in point is when I originally wrote this piece over 10 years ago about my then six-year-old daughter, Batsheva who has just turned 17:
As I was putting her to bed this week, we departed from the usual scenario of me telling her a story. This time she told me some news and it was all about her Siddur Party this week at school. Karen had been decorating the cover of her brand new Siddur the past few days and when the big day came – it was indeed just that. She was dressed in her finest school uniform. She told me of all the food on the table at school during the party. Carrots, hummus, chips and fruit. And the pièce de résistance at the center of the table – a big cake in the shape of a Siddur. She spoke excitingly of how she got to use her Siddur for the first time and how each child had a photo taken with their first Siddur as they held it, posed “under a tree”.
I wrote back then that this is something that she will remember for the rest of her life. Indeed she has, as I confirmed this week that she does vividly recall that special day.
As I said, you don’t have to have a PhD in Jewish education to make sure our children stay Jewish. If children are raised with a Judaism that is loving, warm, fun and happy – there is a very good chance that they will hold onto it forever and pass it along to their children in the same fashion. But if Hebrew school is dark, cold, meaningless, and just a memorization of words that mean nothing until the exit-door of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, well then you can probably guess the outcome.
Kids need to be part and parcel of the religious festivities. Moshe understood this from the outset but Pharaoh didn’t get it. And that’s why it’s not surprising that while Egyptology and its ancient religion lay among the dustbin of history – confined to museums and scholars – Judaism flourishes to this day with the excitement, vigor and energy of beautiful little children proudly displaying their first Siddur.
Who are on the road
Must have a code
That you can live by
Because the past is just a good-bye
Your children well…
And feed them on your dreams
-Crosby Stills Nash & Young