This past Saturday, I joined well over half a million other people in DC at the March for Our Lives rally against the gun violence epidemic in this country. What made this rally especially powerful was the prominence of voices from those who are under 18 years old. There was a hopeful sense that the change we desperately need will come from the leadership of this younger generation.
It’s fitting that Passover, a holiday especially oriented towards the youth, is just a few days away. The obligation to retell the story of our exodus from Egypt is framed in the Torah as a response to the questions of children. Just before the Israelites are about to be redeemed, Moses repeats – three times – the commandment to teach this story to our future children.
Why the focus on children? Cynics will offer answers like, “because children are easier to brainwash” or “because the story is fundamentally juvenile.” Pragmatists will say this is the best way to preserve the narrative.
I’d like to suggest a different answer, one rooted in the major theme of Passover: redemption.
The word redemption has a lot of religious connotations, but it can also be used to simply describe an improved state of being. This can occur through miraculous means, like the one we read about at the seder involving hail, locusts, splitting seas, etc. But it can also happen through the hard work of applied idealism.
This hard work starts with the ability to imagine a future that is different than the present. The older one gets, the harder it is to do. Perhaps this is why God made the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years before entering the promised land. To build a new society that was not rooted in oppression, God needed to wait for the older generation that was born into slavery to die off (Numbers 14:31-34).
Perhaps this is also why Moses highlights the questions of future children at the moment of exodus. As we read in the Haggadah: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself or herself as though s/he came forth from Egypt.” Every generation must go through an exodus – a paradigm-shifting change. That change begins by listening to the questions of the children.
For those of us who don’t have children, there is still a relevant message here. Youthfulness doesn’t reflect an age but a mindset. Each of us must leave our own personal “Egypt,” our own confining place (the Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means confining place). To see the way out, we first have to rediscover our childlike wonder and imagination. That redemptive journey starts with a question: “Is there another way?”