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‘And you shall tell your children.’ This Passover more than ever.

Now, with so many elders dying, with so many of us isolated from family, is the time to explain why the Jewish story matters to us. Here is what I will tell my children
Marc Chagall, The Prophet Jeremiah, 1968 (PD)
Marc Chagall, The Prophet Jeremiah, 1968 (PD)

Judaism is a culture that values its elders as repositories of tribal wisdom, and at no time of the Jewish year are the elderly more essential than on Passover. “And you shall tell your children,” the Haggadah instructs us: Tell your children why this night is important, why this story matters. But now our elders are dying, many of them prematurely. And we will be having our seders without the physical presence of the elderly, our transmitters of memory. 

This is an appeal to parents and grandparents, to my generation: This is the time to explain why the Jewish story matters to you.  

Some of you will be present at your children and grandchildren’s seder via Zoom; others can find another way to convey your understanding of the significance of the Jewish story. If you have trouble saying the words, write a letter, or record yourself. 

Why does this story matter? Whatever your answer – because of Jewish history, because God commanded us, because of the Holocaust, because of tikkun olam – try to go a little deeper.

This is a version of what I intend to tell my children this Passover:

I am a Jew because I love a good story. And the Jews are a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are. 

I am a Jew because stories have a purpose. And the Passover story reminds us that the Jewish people was founded intentionally, to convey the message that this world isn’t random but intentional, a reflection of a purposeful creation.

I am a Jew because we insist, sometimes against all rational evidence, that the reality of God will be found in the Jewish story. Given the abuse Jews have experienced, that notion may have often seemed far-fetched, if not frankly ludicrous. It certainly seemed so to my father and many of his fellow Holocaust survivors in 1945. Yet the ongoing vitality of the Jewish people is itself a vindication of that claim to meaning. 

I am a Jew because we were founded in an act of divine redemption and sent into history to help prepare humanity for that time when everyone will stand before Sinai.  

I am a Jew because we are a magnet for the forces of evil. By trying to destroy us, evil seeks to uproot an aspect of God’s presence in the world. 

I am a Jew because I express my vision of human oneness through Jewish distinctiveness –  just like the first Jew, Abraham, who was told to leave his birthplace and his parents’ home, to separate himself from the world, for the sake of being a blessing to the world. We bless the world from within our story – through our story. Even when, confronted with overwhelming challenges and we sometimes lose our way, the Jewish story points us back like a compass to the redemptive promise of Passover. 

I am a Jew because an increasingly forlorn world needs its venerable peoples that still retain ancient memory, that can access every phase of human wisdom. 

I am a Jew because I feel the privilege and responsibility of being born after the Holocaust and the creation of Israel and the emergence of the strongest Diaspora in Jewish history, a time when the Jewish story seems to have reached a culmination – when our worst nightmares and most extravagant dreams have to some extent been fulfilled and we are commanded to make sense of it all.

I am a Jew because we are history’s great survivors. At a time of growing apocalyptic dread, when humanity has, for the first time, the capacity to destroy itself, Jews need to share their wisdom of survival. How did we do it? How did we not only outlast all the empires that sought to destroy us but move, in a single generation, from the abyss of the Holocaust to one of the peak moments in our history? We are obliged to uncover and share the secret of Jewish transcendence.  

I am a Jew because of the faith of my ancestors. At times when faith in God has been elusive to me, I have trusted those Jews whose faith was strong enough to prevail against the most daunting challenges that history could conjure.  

I am a Jew because of my parents and my children. 

 

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.
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