The Torah (Exodus 13:8) describes the Pesach experience as an intergenerational teaching opportunity. Parents must transmit to their children the experiences and lessons of our ancestors and how they shape, inform and influence our lives to this very day. However, the Torah does not want parents to simply lecture or convey information. We attempt to pique the curiosity of the child. We want the child to initiate the questions, we want the child to yearn for answers and so we do many things over the course of the seder that look different and out of place — all in order to create an atmosphere of spiritual exploration. Perhaps the most well-known (and scripted) set of questions at the seder is the Mah Nishtana. The child asks the same four questions about the unusual practices of the seder year after year in order to initiate the parent-child dialogue. This is the hallmark of the sacred seder night. Then something strange occurs. We recite the paragraph of Avadim hayinu — We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. One would have thought that after the child asks these legitimate and good questions, the parent would immediately answer. However, we don’t address any of these questions and instead we give a history lesson on the Exodus narrative. Why not answer the child directly? Explain to him why we eat the matzah. Tell her the symbolism of the maror. Explain the behavioral freedom of reclining. The Mah Nishtana questions are solid and the answers to them serve as the foundation of our Pesach experience. Why not answer the questions directly and immediately?
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) provides a magnificent insight. We have many mitzvos — some of which have a readily understandable reason and some which do not. Some mitzvos appeal to our intellect, others speak to our heart, and still others seemingly defy comprehension. However, upon further reflection it becomes clear that even the things we think we understand, we don’t truly comprehend. The ways of God are magnificent and mysterious. The actions of God confound and amaze. The decisions of God can both gladden and break the heart of man. So why serve a God we can’t understand or comprehend? The answer is contained in one word: belief. We believe in God and we believe that He believes in us. We believe that we are part of a master plan and that every step we take is necessary and meaningful in the actualization of that plan. We believe that our life challenges and difficulties are not an ends but rather a means to achieve completion, fulfillment, and self-actualization. We believe that God loves us more than any human mind could ever comprehend. We believe that God cherishes His relationship with us. We believe that God celebrates our accomplishments and mourns our losses. We believe.
This is how we answer our children on the seder night. My child asks me thoughtful, meaningful, and significant questions. Why do we do this and that? Why do we observe? What is the meaning of these practices? I can give my child a whole list of technical answers and reasons. I can give my child multiple opinions and levels of understanding as to the symbolic and ritual meaning of everything we do. But instead I do something simpler, yet much more profound. My dear child, I do what I do because I believe. God took me out because He loves me and because He realizes that I have something important to contribute. My dear child, if there is something I want to convey to you tonight — it is my sense of belief. I want to pass on to you the strong belief I received from my father and he from his. I want to give you this emunah (belief) because if you have it and if you nurture it, you will feel the warm embrace of the Divine. As parents it is our obligation to teach our children how to practice and observe the Torah and its mitzvos. But tonight, we teach our children how to believe.
Tonight is not the night for complicated intellectual analyses, it is not the night for detailed discussions regarding Jewish Law. Tonight is the night to teach our children simple, beautiful, and genuine faith. How do you teach belief? You model it. When my child looks to me at the seder, I will try my best to convey to him how privileged I feel to be a Jew. When my child looks at me, I want her to see the joy I have in serving my God. When my children look at me, I want them to feel the privilege they have to be part of a magnificent nation with a holy destiny.