by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
Each year at the Passover Seder, we retell the story of Exodus from Egypt. The story however does not begin with the enslavement of the Jewish people. The story begins hundreds of years earlier with the history of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The story is about what makes us different from those around us. The story is about those who tried to destroy us. The story is about our survival. It is about our becoming a nation.
The telling of the story each year follows the youngest child asking the Four Questions, though they are really one question in four parts. “Why is this night different than all other nights?” We then describe the four sons (types of children) and the path that they take to better understand the answer to their questions.
In our (re)telling of the story, we are reenacting the history of the Jewish people. We read that בכל דור ודור חיב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים, “In every generation one must see oneself as though having personally come forth from Egypt”.
There are two words in the Haggadah that jump out at me year after year. צא ולמד, go and learn. Education is something that we must pursue. We cannot simply wait for answers to come to us. We need to seek out the answers. We must seek out those who can provide the answer.
We do this by finding schools and teachers. We do this, often, at great costs and at great sacrifices. We do this to help us through our personal wandering of the desert. We do this because of what it says before and after the words צא ולמד, go and learn.
והיא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו. שלא אחד בלבד עמד עלינו לכלותנו. אלא בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותנו. “This is the promise that has sustained our ancestors and us. For it was not one enemy alone who rose up against us to destroy us; in every generation, there are those who rise up against us and seek to destroy us.”
Our Passover Seder concludes with my favorite line in our liturgy. It comes from the Hallel. We say, מן המצר קראתי יה. ענני במרחביה. “From the narrow constraints, I called out to God. He answered me from the great wide open.” When we are constrained, we call out, we search for answers. Only when those answers come, are we truly able to achieve freedom.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitrayim, according to some wordsmiths, demonstrates the notion of travelling through a narrow (difficult) situation (life in Egypt) to the wide open (freedom/life in the wilderness). The Hebrew word Metzar, is related to the word Tzar or Tzarah/ot. It is also similar to the Tzara’at, the Biblical leprosy that we learn about in this week’s Parsha Tazria. There is also a connection to the concept of walking through the sea, out of slavery into a world of freedom. The following illustration may help.
Our school provides the great wide open. It also provides the impetus for asking questions, the understanding to know what and how to ask the questions and where to go to find the answers. The answers are different for each of us, but it is the taking of the first step, the “go(ing)” that will allow us to learn.
Yes, in every generation there have been those that are set out to destroy us, our way of living and our beliefs. It’s been the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Nazis and countless other groups who have set out to destroy us. Yet, in two weeks, Jews across the world will sit together at their Passover tables, for the three thousand, three hundred and seventeenth straight year (the exodus story took place c. 1300 BCE) telling our history and survival.
We can do this because of Jewish education. It is because of our ability to teach and reteach, ask and re-ask, learn and relearn. We can do this because of Joshua ben Gamla, who created the first school system in approximately 64 CE. We can do this because of you. Jewish Day Schools, Jewish learning, Jewish survival, Jewish… is because of each of you, each of us, those who send their children to Jewish Day School, those who financially support Jewish Day School, those who help us each year provide a wide-open place where our cries and questions can be answered.
This past Friday at our weekly Kabbalat Shabbat at school, we welcomed some of our school’s founders. Thirty-one years ago, a group of dedicated individuals came together and raised funds to create our school. They knew that in order for Jewish learning and living to be successful in Memphis, they needed to lend their support. Here we are thirty-one years later, thanks to them. They felt the constraints and called out. We are their answer. Together we are still calling out, asking questions, bringing others to support us in our efforts.
It doesn’t happen thirty-one years ago as a dream, or one or two nights a year while eating matzah. It happens every day. And we need you to help us make sure that it continues to happen every day going forward. It is our responsibility to צא ולמד, go and learn.