By Rabbi Elie Estrin, Chabad at the University of Washington
A schoolchild approaches his father, who is deeply engrossed in his newspaper. The kid asks, “Dad, what’s the difference between ‘ignorance’ and ‘apathy?’” Responds the visibly annoyed father: “I don’t know and I don’t care!”
That joke might be old hat, but it’s one worthwhile pondering over this Passover. We, the Jewish community in Seattle in particular, are at an interesting junction. The much-ballyhooed Pew Report tells us that our youth are proud Jews. Seemingly, however, there is little carry-over into their lives. The young Jews carry their identity with pride, but… then what? Intermarriage, practice, communal involvement, Jewish study and Israel seem to move precious few souls. Why?
In our 10 years at the helm of Chabad at the University of Washington, my wife and I have served some 20,000 Shabbos meals, taught thousands hours of classes, listened to over 2,000 college students, and learned one thing: If one doesn’t have a personal connection to Judaism, why should it have a role in determining the food they eat, the clothes they wear, or the people they marry?
Our youth have become the annoyed dad of the joke. Ignorance and apathy. In fact, one leads to the other — if one doesn’t understand the tradition or the meaning of Judaism, the meaning of being Jewish, apathy is a natural result. Why should I care about something I know and understand nothing about? (And that question sounds suspiciously like it comes from a conspicuous member or two from a cadre of four children we speak about every year.)
I believe the answer to our youth conundrum lies in Passover tradition. At the seder, we tackle these two Pharaohs head-on: The antidote to ignorance is to reveal the sweet depth and beauty of Judaism, to challenge with ever more questions, and widen the search for meaningful answers. That give and take of the seder is the perfect time to ask your teens, your college-age children, or even yourselves, the questions of: What does this all mean to me, now? And what can I uncover from the Haggadah, that magical source of inspiration and insight, that will move me in my own Jewish journey? After all, the Talmud teaches, “The main thing is not pontification, but action.” It’s not just about discussing theoretical ideas. We need to act on them.
For your own seder, here is one word in particular that might assist you in uncovering that beauty. The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, and Chassidic thought points out that this word has the same letters as the word Metzarim, meaning “limitations.” Now we can flip the whole story on its head; no longer is it just a historical “we won, let’s eat”; it’s an experience that affects every one of us in the here and now. What are your limitations — be they spiritual, physical or even addictive? What are the Pharaohs of those limitations? How can the symbolism of the seder plate, the humility of the matzoh, and the introspection of the four children within me, assist me to break free of those limitations and allow me to actively pursue my relationship with God?
While this intellectual and spiritual thinking process is part of our modus operandi at Chabad at UW, I believe it behooves every Jewish home, no matter what level of observance, to explore the richness of our heritage through vigorous debate and discussion that lead to practical conclusions. Only that will move our youth to stay the course. Passover is the perfect time and setting for this type of familial and deeply personal, yet intelligent and transcendent, Jewish exploration. Happy Passover!