The seder is a singular event in the Jewish calendar, requiring days, or even weeks, of preparation. When we sit down at the table, at last, and coax the youngest participant to askMa Nishtana, we know exactly what is different, and how much effort it took to make it different.
The next set of questions – those asked by the Four Sons, or the Four Children – addresses a larger issue. According to one perspective, the Four Sons represent four generations of the Jewish people. This leads us to the wider question I have posed above. A different night is one thing, but a whole different generation?
The first generation is not only wise, but enthusiastic – or perhaps it is enthusiastic because it is wise. It has received a solid Jewish education and is steeped in Jewish life and Jewish culture. Its members ask questions so as to broaden and deepen their commitment.
The second generation is wicked (the language is harsh, but it’s the text we have): This generation may have learned the “behavioral” part of Judaism, but it has missed the spiritual and the inspirational elements. Lacking a meaningful understanding of Pesach – and, indeed, of Judaism – it rebels.
The third generation asks a question that is almost primitive: “What is this?” This generation is ignorant, too ignorant to be rebellious. Yet the grandchild notices unfamiliar objects and actions, and so he approaches the grandfather with his questions.
The child of the fourth generation, however, is not motivated to ask, and would not even know what or whom to ask. No one in his orbit is Jewishly knowledgeable or Jewishly connected. Hisgrandfather is a member of the second generation, the one who rebelled against the Jewish heritage and rejected it. He has no memories and no context.
This tragedy is being played out all over the world. It is particularly stark in the former Soviet Union (FSU). The pogroms of the 19th century gave way to the religious repression of the 20th. Now, less than a generation since Jews regained the right to practice Judaism openly, how many Jews in the FSU can ask the questions? How many have memories of Jewish life? Of a seder at their grandparents’ home? Of a menorah in the window?
For too many Jews in the FSU today, Judaism is not even a memory – it is the memory of a memory.
This generation is different, because so many cannot access the familial aspect of Judaism.This generation, more than any other in Jewish history, has been distanced so long and so effectively, that it must reach out beyond itself in order to reconnect. At the same time, we who are capable of transmitting Jewish knowledge must rise to the challenge and meet it more than half way.
The task before us is to inspire and empower this generation, in the FSU and elsewhere, to re-create Jewish memories and restore Jewish knowledge. It is almost a miracle that, so far removed from the positive practice of Judaism, there are those who still seek, and even hunger for, Judaism.
But let us not be complacent: The FSU is not the only place where generations of Jews are being lost.
Throughout our history, and in almost every country of our dispersion – with the noteworthy exception of the United States – others have tried to destroy us with hate. Today, however, the biggest problem – especially in the United States – is that we are being decimated by “love,” as, one by one, Jews are voluntarily surrendering their Judaism on an unprecedented scale.
Our response to this threat must also occur one-to-one. At the seder, and every day, we must respond to our children’s curiosity with substance and we must meet their passion with our own. We must assure that we live a Judaism that is fresh and vigorous and compelling, so that every generation will be able to establish itself as a first generation that is both wise and enthusiastic.