What is the essential mitzvah of Passover? It’s not eating matzah. It’s not cleaning your house and getting rid of hametz. Yes, the Torah mentions those as mitzvot, but I believe they serve a larger purpose that is spelled out in Parashat Bo: passing on our tradition to the next generation.
On at least three occasions, we find in Parashat Bo mention of children:
1. God brings two more plagues on Egypt, locusts and a thick darkness, where people could not see one another for three days. Pharaoh tries to work out a compromise, letting the Israelites go taking their elders, but not their young ones. Moses insists, bin’a’areinu uvizkuneinu neleikh—with our young and with our old we will go.” Moses will not settle for anything less. He states his case loud and clear that we, the Israelite people, are all in this together. We need one another. The young need the old and the old need the young.
In today’s Torah reading, we study the foundation of what we recognize as the Passover seder. The Paschal lamb must be eaten with matzah and maror. I find one verse in this section to be particularly striking (Exodus 13:8): V’higadata l’vincha bayom hahu leimor, ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li b’tzeiti mi-Mitzrayim—“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” From this verse, we derive the mitzvah of telling the story of our people. It was not enough for the Israelites to get out of Egypt. They committed themselves in a public ritual to tell their story from one generation to the next for all time. We should all remember where we came from, and we should always remember our responsibility to make the world a bit brighter and a bit better for the next generation.
3. וְהָיָ֕ה כִּי־יֹֽאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם:
“Your children will ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’”
This is the origin of the familiar seder custom of having the children present ask the Four Questions. This verse is also one of three references in this parashah plus one in Deuteronomy that the Haggadah connects to the prototypical Four Children whom parents are obliged to engage in discussion at the seder. The whole point of the seder is to connect with the next generation so that they may connect with Jewish tradition.
In our day, our children are watching to see how their Jewish mothers and fathers respond to the Trump administration’s abuse of vulnerable populations. On January 27, President Trump issued an Executive Order banning refugees and permanent residents who originated from seven predominantly Muslim countries. A number of permanent residents were detained and denied entry at US airports. The order had the effect of discriminating against our Muslim neighbors on the basis of their religion. Protests erupted spontaneously across the country protesting this illegal and immoral action.
I attended a rally on Sunday at Palm Beach International Airport and was inspired by the large cross section of our community united to raise our voices in protest against this action.
As protests continued throughout the week, there was a rally at Chicago’s O’hare International Airport on Monday that got a lot of attention. A photo from that rally went viral. In the photo were a Jewish man wearing a kippah and his young son on his shoulders wearing a black velvet kippah. The young boy was holding a sign that read “Hate has no home here.” Standing just a few feet away was a Muslim man with a young girl on his shoulders. She was wearing a hijab and was holding a sign that said “Love.” The boy and the girl were looking at each other and smiling.
The Chicago Tribune published this photo and within hours it was retweeted 16,000 times. After the photo went viral, the Tribune ran a follow-up story in which the reporter tracked down the two fathers, Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appel and Fatih Yildirim. The boy’s name is Adin, and the girl’s name in Meryem. The families had never met until that rally. The fathers exchanged phone numbers.
When they started hearing from hundreds of friends and acquaintances after the picture was published, they texted each other, in awe of the way the small moment became momentous.
“I know the tension between the Jews and the Muslims. People think we hate each other. But we’re not fighting. When we come next to each other we can have normal conversations,” Yildirim said. “We can promote the peace together.”
“I just feel like if this picture, in some small way, can bring a bit more light and love into the world, I’m so happy about that.”
According to the report, the Bendat-Appel family invited the Yildirim family to their home for Shabbat dinner last night, which hopefully took place.
This magical moment captured in photograph of a Jewish child and a Muslim child coming together to promote justice gives me hope that the message of Passover continues to ring true. Passover is meaningless unless we transmit our tradition to the next generation, inspire them, and engage them in the cause to create a better world.
Our children are watching us and the events around us. When they ask מָ֛ה הָֽעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם —what does this mean to you?—We’d better be prepared to respond in a way that will inspire them to fulfill the values of our people. I pray that the innocent bond between two young children, one Jew, one Muslim, will lay the groundwork for healing in our country and our world.