April 17, 2008
12 Nissan, 5768
This week, I had the pleasure of attending the Facing History and Ourselves dinner, which brought thirteen hundred people together to celebrate Facing History, an inspiring educational organization that is making a significant impact on teachers and schools in Boston, throughout the country and around the world. Although attending any event during the week before Passover is logistically challenging, I can’t think of a more appropriate event to have attended in preparation – intellectually and spiritually – for this holiday.
Facing History’s mission is “to help teachers around the world lead their students in a critical examination of history, with particular focus on genocide and mass violence. Facing History’s work is based on the premise that we need to—and can—teach civic responsibility, tolerance, and social action to young people, as a way of fostering moral adulthood. If we do not educate students for dignity and equity, then we have failed both them and ourselves.” (See the website www.facinghistory.org for more information.) I am proud that many of Gann’s teachers, students, parents and lay leaders have worked closely with Facing History and that we share in common the mission to teach history in a way that both brings the stories and dilemmas of real people to life for our students, and also prepares our students to be critically engaged with the past in a way that inspires civic participation, social responsibility and moral choices.
As I listened to the speakers at the Facing History dinner – an “upstander” who saved hundreds of Jewish children from perishing in the Holocaust, a former Cambodian child soldier, a Boston Public School student who recently immigrated to America from Islamabad, Pakistan – I was struck both by the power of their stories and their courage as well as by their capacity to inspire all of us to care about them as individual human beings, about their journeys and the social-historical contexts in which they took place, and about our own lives and the choices we have to make. If not for copyright issues, what better subtitle for every history class we teach at Gann and for our Passover Seder than the very name of this special organization? Imagine “10th Grade Modern European History: Facing History and Ourselves,” or “The Baker Family Passover Seder of 5768: Facing History and Ourselves.”
Passover is not only about telling the story of the Exodus; it is about facing the story of the Exodus. The haggadah, our pedagogical guide for the seder experience, is designed to open us up as learners and storytellers: to stimulate authentic and critical questions, to help us reflect on ourselves as learners and teachers, to invite us into the thousands year old midrashic tradition of interpreting our stories and finding ourselves in our people’s narrative. When we do this – when we actually face our story and ourselves – we will discover deep theological questions and profound moral dilemmas: What would we have done if we were Moses and saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave? Is it okay for us to rejoice at the suffering those who have caused us suffering for so long? What does it mean for us to live as free and privileged people in a world where so much slavery and oppression still exist? How do we truly fulfill the words of Ha Lachma Anya at the beginning of the seder, “kol dichpin yaytay v’yaychol – Let all who are hungry come and eat,” as so many of us sit comfortably in our suburban homes, not forced to face those who are truly hungry and homeless?
While “Mah Nishtanah” is a convenient formula and an appropriate way to engage our youngest children, these kinds of questions and dilemmas are the real questions, the authentic questions, which bring our story to life and illuminate the moral choices that we and our children must make today. As Jews, we always face history in order to face ourselves and we cannot face ourselves outside the context of our history and our people. We tell our story not only to remember the past and to root ourselves in a deep sense of where we come from, but to learn about who we are, where we strive to go in the future, and the values that will guide us in the right direction. On the seder night we simultaneously recreate the experience of slavery in Egypt, celebrate the present and bask in our freedom, and long for a better, redeemed, future for ourselves and the world – “l’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim (next year in Jerusalem).”
May we celebrate Passover and may we fulfill the mitzvah of maggid, of telling our story, in ways that bring us face to face with the experiences of our ancestors, with our family and friends around our table, and with people throughout the world whose experiences are reflected in our story and whose stories themselves challenge and inspire us; and, may we uncover deep and relevant questions and moral dilemmas that challenge and prepare us to reflect on our civic and moral responsibilities, to actively take our place in history, and to stand up and play our role in bringing others and our world mi’avdut l’cherut, from slavery and oppression to freedom and redemption.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker