Every year we make the mistake of viewing the four children – the wise, the simple, the wicked and the one who does not know how to ask – as paradigmatic of personality types and styles of learning. We think we are challenged to offer Jewish wisdom to the beautiful array of children who need it. But in viewing the Haggadah’s four children only as children – as those other, little ones who need our help - we prove that we are in fact the fourth child: we do not know how to ask, and in fact do not know to ask. The Haggadah tells us that we are all wise, simple, wicked, and unable to ask. We can ask, and should ask, “what is this festival – to me?”
Rabbi Judah Leib Alter, known as the “S’fat Emet” ("Language of Truth") after his commentaries on the Torah, lived in the late nineteenth century. He offers a beautiful and surprising interpretation of Pesach.
He says that “on every Pesach, a Jew becomes like a new person, like the newborn child each of us was as we came out of Egypt.” There is a point within our hearts that God implanted within each of us - and it is renewed on Pesach. Our task is to expand this point of purity. This point gets covered over when we forget it and concern ourselves with what is unimportant, when we fail to act beautifully. We do forget it throughout the year, but this festival is the time when the point is renewed. Rabbi Alter says we have to protect this unchanging point from “fermentation” or change as we would dough prepared for Matzah.
In the Torah, in Exodus, we are told
“Keep the festival of matzot, because b’etzem hayom – on this very day – I brought the children of Israel from the land of Egypt.”The phrase b’etzem hayom – this very day – can also be translated as this “inner” or “inward” day - that is, Passover is a day of inwardness. Rabbi Alter says that we are thus instructed to keep this inner point and remember it – we have to struggle through the year to remember that God implanted this purity within us. Pesach is a time, Rabbi Alter says, “that reminds us of the real reason we were created in this world – to do God’s will.”
Another word play illuminates his point. We are commanded regarding the sippur, the “telling” of the story of the exodus. Sippur can also mean shining, or brilliance (some say that the Kabbalists notion of the s’firot, from the same root, comes from this latter meaning, and was a Hebrew adaptation of the word “Saphire.”) If Sippur does mean brilliance or shining, then we might say we are commanded to let this pure point of divinity shine out at Pesach, to uncover it and renew its capacity to light our lives.
The essential point is that we are to see ourselves as if we personally were liberated from Egypt. This is not just an exercise in historical imagination. Indeed, every generation and every individual is involved in a personal y’tziat M’mitzrayim, a going out from Egypt.
In some way we are enslaved. How? We all have our own answers. But if we don’t uncover this light within us, this point of divine brilliance, we will not be able find understanding and happiness, we will fail to act with courage and beauty as we reach out to others, we will be unable to reshape according to God’s will the world in which we live.
Rabbi Alter teaches that each of us must assume responsibility, ultimately, for recovering this divine point – the Exodus is personal. It is also collective – we struggle away from Egypt as a beautiful and blessed family, as part of a people, part of a community, striving to recover the purest point within us.