19 March 2010
4 Nissan 5770
Last Shabbat, two friends shared with me one of their innovative ideas for engaging people at their Passover Seder. Each person at their table will wear the mask of one of the four children from the well-known reading in the Haggadah – chacham (wise child), rasha (wicked child), tam (simple child), or she’eino yodea lishol (the child who does not know how to ask) and will try to act and respond in the character of the child whose mask he is wearing. Even more meaningful and innovative to me is when someone reads from the Haggadah or engages someone else, he must address that person in the way that he would address the child whose mask that person is wearing. People will be challenged to embody one of the four children, as well as to reflect on how and what they will say to the different children at the table.
As we begin the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) on this Shabbat of Exploration Week, which falls on the eve of Passover this year, I have been thinking about this dramatization of the four children and am moved by the connections between the three.
The midrash about the four children, a hallmark of the Passover Seder, reminds us that “keneged arba’ah banim dibra Torah – the Torah is spoken/given to four different types of children,” each of whom needs to be taught, listened to, and understood in his or her own unique way. Before we tell the story itself, we are reminded that there is no cookie-cutter approach to telling the Passover story, to transmitting our values and traditions, or, more broadly, to Jewish education. At the same time, the seemingly redundant opening word of the Book of Vayikra (after which the book is named) prompts Rashi to quote a midrash that alludes to a similar educational and interpersonal principal as the Four Children. “Vayikra el Moshe vayedaber Hashem elav . . . And God called to Moshe and spoke to him, saying . . .” Why does the text say that God both called to him and spoke to him? Why not just say, as it does in many other places in the Torah, “And God spoke to Moshe, saying . . .?” Rashi explains that “all communications to Moshe, whether speeches or commands, are preceded by ‘a keriah – a call,’ as a way of expressing affection.” He contrasts this to other occasions when God speaks to people in a more casual, ordinary, or haphazard way. By “calling” to Moshe before speaking to him, God sends the unspoken message of affection and intentionality, as if to say: “Before we get to the substance of what I will communicate, I want you to know that I see you and I am speaking to you, and that who you (the listener) are makes a difference to what I say and how I say it.”
This concept of keriah – of seeing and calling to each child with his or her unique passions, interests, and styles of learning – is also one of the core educational principles of Exploration Week and of Gann’s educational mission and vision. Exposing students to a wide range of creative and compelling learning experiences, including what, how, where, and with whom they learn, is one way of “calling” each individual child. Giving students autonomy and choice over what they learn and how they learn is meant to send them a message of affection and intentionality: we see you, and we know that there is no cookie-cutter approach to challenging, nurturing, and inspiring you to live lives of meaning and consequence. This is the holy work of education, and, whether in the classroom, on Exploration Week programs, or at our Seder tables, this is our calling.
Rabbi Marc Baker