Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.”
“You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the Law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt.” (Ex.13:8-9)
This verse, in Jewish tradition, relates to the ritual of the Pesach ceremony, and is alluded to in the Passover Haggadah, which mentions a famous passage in Ezekiel:
“What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” (Ezek.18:2)
Rabbi Weiss, of Mechon Hadar, offers a fascinating reflection on this:
“The rasha’s (obstinate son’s) question does not refer to the pesah offering as a composite of laws, but rather as avodah, meaning service. The term avodah can be neutral or positive, but it can also connote drudgery, or even slavery. This term reflects the rasha’s perspective, that the ritual is meaningless, soul-crushing labor. The rasha wants to know why he is bound to execute a set of actions that are pointless to him, why he is obligated to do this work that isn’t about him and doesn’t serve him.” (“Responding to the Wicked Son”, Dena Weiss)
This reveals both our human condition, and the real problem we face in passing our faith on to the next generation.
Before we can hope to pass our faith on to our children or to others, we must first face the fact that we often fail to understand it ourselves.
Perhaps this is why, as the children of Jacob prepare to escape Egypt, Moses exhorts them to rehearse the events and the ritual of it’s remembrance to their descendants. By instructing the people to teach their sons concerning the events surrounding their deliverance, God is also confronting the people with a mirror of their own obstinance. After all, nothing is quite so effective at forcing self-reflection than the challenge of teaching one who has come from you; your children.
The rasha, as we saw above, looks at his parents and asks, “What does this ritual have to do with me?”
In fact, if we are honest, we have asked the same question of God also.
The truth is that, while an extraordinary experience with God (such as our own personal “exodus” from the world and into the kingdom of Heaven) may set us on a path of following Him, only ritualized learning will sustain that path. Therefore, when we, the parents, are faced with the rituals of faith, are they a joy or a slavery to us? How do we view our avodah? How, then, can we expect our children to view them any differently?
The process of teaching our children reaffirms the idea that our journey is not singular, but is intricately connected to the journeys of those who have gone before us and also those who will come after us. Our children must be instructed as to their place in the story, whether they appreciate it today or not.
In Jewish law, this idea is of huge importance, and it forms the backbone of the apostolic mandate for discipleship in the New Testament. This is because it is understood that the job of passing truth on to the next generation does not fall upon fathers alone, but is the responsibility of an entire community.
An official halacha of Judaism is that “schoolteachers must be set up in every city. A city can be placed under a ban for refusing to establish educators.” (Rambam Sefer HaMadda)
“Initially, whoever had a father would have his father teach him Torah, and whoever did not have a father would not learn Torah at all…When the Sages saw that not everyone was capable of teaching their children and Torah study was declining, they instituted an ordinance that teachers of children should be established in Jerusalem…teachers of children should be established in each and every province and in each and every town, and they would bring the children in to learn at the age of six and at the age of seven. With regard to the matter at hand, since this system was established for the masses, the neighbors cannot prevent a scholar from teaching Torah in the courtyard.” (Talmud, Bava Batra 21a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
This process of transmission is not, as some would suggest, a manipulative or oppressive form of indoctrination. Occasionally, we hear people who tell us, proudly, that they don’t believe it’s their job as parents to tell their children what they should believe about God or faith, but that each person should be free to form their own opinions. This perspective, which would appear on the surface to be wisdom, actually is very foolish.
We will never succeed in passing on a virtue worth keeping by attempting to individualize something that is expressly designed to be communal.
The Talmud’s rulings show us exactly what the Torah tells us: It is given by God for parents to faithfully instruct their descendants in truth, and not just them, but the entire community. It is not an issue of “to each his own.” It is the job of the community to oversee each family.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out for us:
“What the Torah is teaching is that freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts…but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured…to sustain (freedom) is the work of a hundred generations. Forget it and you lose it.” (Sacks, “Schools of Freedom”, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, Koren publishers, pg.78)
What needs to also be understood, and this is perhaps why the exhortation of teaching sons centers on the Passover, is that this instruction is not just cerebral, or even textual, but is also experiential, and ritualistic.
In modern Evangelicalism, it is fashionable to eschew formality and ritual altogether as mere cobwebs of an ancient dwelling that must be fastidiously swept away to make room for new sensibilities. Nothing could be more counter-productive to our objective.
It is precisely when our children are so caught up in the lights, sounds and excitements of modern civilization that they most decidedly require ritual and formal practice. The presence of ritual and tradition form emotional and cultural memories that ground them while they figure out the application of “What does this mean to me?”
In a very real way, this is an area in which Christianity can most stand to learn from Judaism. The Jewish child does not have a dissimilar experience to a Christian child, in their questioning of faith and faith practice. However, in Judaism there is much ritual which is connected directly to the Bible, and just as importantly, to the sufferings and trials of their ancestors.
“If rituals are a way of thinking in community akin to scientific communities, then the biblical emphasis on rites that lead to knowledge cannot be ignored. Practicing a rite to know occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible. God answers Abram’s skepticism, “How shall I know that I will possess the land?” with a ritual intended to make him know (Gen.15). The recurring rites of Sabbath (Ex.31:13) and dwelling in Sukkah (Lev.23:43) direct Israel toward discernment of an event’s enduring significance. Likewise, building stone memorials aims at the knowledge of generations to come (Josh.4:6)…the rites of Israel, as portrayed in the biblical texts, disposed Israelites to recognize something they could not have seen apart from their participation.” (“Knowledge By Ritual”, Dru Johnson, from the Journal of Theological Interpretation)
“From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim.3:15)
What can be easily lost in this idea, and what we must see if we are to succeed in carrying out this mandate, is that when God commands us to instruct our children, He is, naturally, instructing us as well. For, it is chiefly us who need the encouragement.
This is the sentiment behind the classic song by Crosby, Stills & Nash, quoted above. As we seek to pass our legacy onto our children, it is then, and perhaps only then, that we gain God’s perspective upon our own journey of discovering Him.