“And it shall come to pass, when your children say to you, what does this service mean to you?” (Exodus 12:26)
Central to the theme of the Passover festival are the questions of the children. The Four Sons, personified in the Haggada narrative, accompany every Passover Seder, sharing different perspectives and approaches to the proceedings of the evening and to the historical understanding of the liberation from Egypt. While the Israelites were still in Egypt they were given the Mitzvah of the first Paschal offering. Many details of the Paschal offering are detailed in this week’s Torah portion.
Also included is the inevitable question this will generate from the younger generation – the question of why. Why do we perform this service, why is it meaningful? The repeats itself in other places in the Torah, defining the Passover festival as the festival of questions. The commentaries ask another “why.” Why is Passover the only festival with these questions? Why do other festivals seem to be self-explanatory, failing to inspire inquisitiveness from the younger generations?
One answer, I read in the name of R’ Yoel Bin Nun, is that Passover is different from other festivals because of its timing. We observe three pilgrimage festivals, when most of the nation would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival in the shadow of the Temple. Two of these festivals, Sukkot and Shavuot, happen during harvest times, when it is natural to hold celebrations and offer thanksgiving. Sukkot, the autumn festival (in the northern hemisphere) comes when the produce sown in the spring, in the fertile and moist earth, is harvested. The granaries are full and provisions are set aside to get through the winter. It is a culmination of many months of hard work, and celebrating at that time is intuitive. Shavuot comes in late spring, when the winter wheat is ready for harvest. The younger generations can understand why at this time we are gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate. But Passover, in the spring, is not a time of harvest, it is shortly after the planting. The young shoots are just beginning to appear on the surface of the earth. Why are we celebrating in this season? This is why the question is prompted specifically during the Passover festival.
And what is reason for this? Why indeed is Passover celebrated at what seems a random time of the year?
The message for the younger generation is that the fields at this time show their potential. We are not celebrating the reaping of a full harvest; this is not a time of thanksgiving for that which we already have achieved. This is a time of acknowledging and celebrating the potential that could grow. When we were liberated from slavery in Egypt it is because the Lord saw the potential of the nation of Israel. God redeemed us from Egypt and set us on a course to actualize that potential. We similarly celebrate the potential of the early days of growth, giving thanks for what it could become.
The Wellington Jewish Community marks each year, during Shabbat Bo, the first service held in the city, indeed in the country, in 1843. This year marks the 175th anniversary of that first service. The founders of the community, the 19 Jews who established themselves in Wellington, surely recognized the potential for a long lasting community. They saw the need to plant the seeds and create the groundwork for that potential to actualize. The members who comprise the community today are the latest of many harvests that the community has produced. This is certainly an occasion worth marking.