The Legacy of the Simple Son
I remember when Pesach was a mad frenzy of cleaning, packing, unpacking, and trying to get the house ready. I remember the bloody knuckles grating 50 pounds of potatoes on a flat metal grater. The Seder itself had less pedagogical value than the weeks of preparation that left one physically exhausted but with a lifetime of memories. As a nine-year-old I was charged with doing the family shopping which included carrying a fifty pound sack of potatoes on my shoulder, up two flights of stairs. I didn’t have a hard time relating to the perils of slavery.
Today, pre-Pesach packing is a rite of passage for the multitudes who travel to kosher for Passover five star hotels. In their palatial setting, they reminisce about the enslavement of our ancestors. In my youth the focus was always on the hardship of slavery. Thank god the focus today is more on the post-slavery mentality. We were limited to expounding on the first two cups of wine which told of the misery and suffering of our people, while today’s focus is primarily on the last two cups which refer to the Jews’ ultimate freedom and redemption.
Pesach in our grandparents’ era was vastly different. There were few (if any) kosher supermarkets and definitely none where you could order your entire Seder, including the Seder plate and shank bone. Their menu consisted of chicken soup mit (with) kneidlach, gekochte (boiled) fish and gekochte fleish (meat) with a side helping of gribenes (fried hardened chicken fat). They would have been horrified by the vast array of delicacies available today. They would have considered it unpesachdik. I can almost hear their heavily accented voices declaring, “Oy, these spoiled Americanishe kinder can’t live without ice cream, potato chips, and kosher l’pesach bagels for even eight days!”
However, years ago living a Jewish life demanded a basic knowledge of Jewish law. The shochet may have slaughtered the chicken, but the woman of the house cleaned it and checked if it was kosher. The products on supermarket shelves had no kosher indication and the individual shopper had to have the experience and knowledge to make that determination. In today’s world people are so reliant on the opinion of others that they don’t think for themselves. Initially, keeping kosher was a function of the brain. It required the ability to discern nuances in Jewish law and use these concepts to their advantage. (Many foods may be purchased without any supervision at half the price even for Passover.)
The kosher supervision industry has benefited the kosher consumer by enabling the commercial production of many items that otherwise would be unattainable. Yet it has also done irreparable damage by reducing the consumer to a robotic entity void of the ability to think and reflect. The first request we make in the amidah prayer is for “chachmah” and “binah,” for wisdom and understanding. Wisdom denotes the ability to retain the information collected in our brain’s database, while binah is using that information to further enhance our knowledge. Binah is what would be referred to in legal terms as precedent.
The study of Talmud is called “mavin davar m’toch davar,” to comprehend one issue by analyzing another. This has always been Judaism’s main attraction; this is why we were called the people of the book. Many Christians read the bible and many Muslims chant the Koran, but the Jew studies the Torah. To the Jew, the words of the Torah are seen as pieces of an intellectual puzzle. This mindset has helped to produce a disproportionate number of Noble prizes in fields as diverse as economics, science, and the arts.
For a religion so steeped in learning and understanding, it feels as if we are selling ourselves short. We are allowing an immediate gratification to make us dependents. We are accepting short term gains and giving up the longer term potential. Life has become so easy. We sit at a table laden with kosher food whose origin we needn’t question. We sit at our Seder reading the translated Haggadah which spoon feeds us rather than forcing us to chew and digest the text. We wonder why our children are complacent; why the excitement we have tried to instill seems to have vanished. The answer is quite simple. Our children see through the mirage. They were taught to challenge and question; they were taught that the real value of something is correlated with the effort we put in to achieving the result. We have become calculator Jews. We left behind the legacy of the astute Jewish shopkeeper whose pencil was his abacus and had no use for technological advances that only serve to weaken the mind.
For me, this is Passover. This is the story that needs to be told. Yes, we were slaves in Egypt and managed to survive. Yes, we were beaten within moments of death but we persevered. Our asset of choice was ingenuity and thought. It may have been gastronomically limiting, but were they worse off?
Our poster child has become the “tam,” the simple son; the child noted for his overall acceptance. Even the wicked son precedes him in the Hagaddah. We may not approve of the wicked son’s attitude, but far better to ask with attitude than to not ask at all. Conceptually the tam may foster an angelic allusion of the perfect child who never questions or argues. However his placement as the third of four children is more of a condemnation of his lackadaisical attitude than a symbol to be emulated. His is the mindset of the weak, those unwilling to stand up and question. We may not have ample time to become scholars in two weeks, yet our attitude can begin to change. We can begin by removing the comfortable cocoon of dependency and allow our wings to flutter and be heard. We can challenge ourselves with the hope that our children may receive the jolt and inspire them to continue sharing the story of our people.
Rabbi Jack Engel