Moshe and Aharon warn Pharaoh of the impending plague of locusts. Pharaoh’s servants turn to him requesting that he heed the warning and set the Israelites free. Pharaoh falters and considers a partial release of the slaves. He asks Moshe who would be joining him to worship God and is surprised at the reply: “everyone, young and old, sons and daughters.” (Shemot 10:9) Pharaoh agrees to allow the men to go and worship God, but the idea of the others going, in particular the children, seems ridiculous to him. This may have been an insurance policy, keeping an important remnant in Egypt to ensure that the slaves returned. Alternatively it may have expressed Pharaoh’s disbelief at their different philosophies.
Rabbi Ari Kahn points out that Egyptian society was built on a clearly defined hierarchy, with taskmasters, overseers, Israelite slave handlers and common slaves. There was also a distinction between males and females. Pharaoh decreed that the boys were to be killed, and the girls were to become personal slaves to the Egyptians. In contrast Moshe is proposing a democratic society. All people can serve God equally, whether they be young, old, men or women. Furthermore, from the outset Pharaoh was warned that if the Israelites were not freed then the Egyptians’ children would die, which is what ended up happening in the final plague of the death of the firstborn. He preferred to sacrifice Egypt’s children than to free the slaves. Yet, here is Moshe advocating the importance of children, even in worship.
This focus on children continues throughout parshat Bo as three times it is mentioned that the story of Egypt should be retold to our children. Interestingly the phrase we see is “and when your children ask you.” On seder night, the annual retelling of the Exodus story, we focus primarily on the children. Our aim is to ignite their curiosity and to encourage and reward their questions. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that when we left Egypt we gained not only liberty of body, but also liberty of the mind. Rather than commanding our children and demanding obedience, we leave behind the authoritarian way and all should feel free to ask questions.
Julie Bogart’s book, The Brave Learner, is packed full of practical tips to bring excitement, curiosity and what she calls ‘enchantment’ to learning.
One piece of advice that Bogart offers to further curiosity is to suspend judgement. “If you shut off the flow of curiosity by dismissing outrageous and persistent questions, you close the tap to learning.” We don’t want to do that, since, “curiosity awakens the drive to learn.”
She offers the example of a child asking: “can i drink gasoline?” Your first response as a protective parent is “no, never!” But that response shuts down curiosity. Instead, wonder what’s behind this question. Take it seriously, assume curiosity is at play, then ask, “gasoline! What would gasoline do for you if you were to drink it?” Your child might respond:“I could run as fast as a car can drive.” Then you understand that the underlying curiosity is speed. You can talk about speed, and follow up with precaution – do not ever drink gasoline – afterwards.
Another of Bogart’s ideas for igniting curiosity would work really well with the Haggada. She recommends approaching a text book like you would a menu. “Would it be a terrible thing if she picked a process smack-dab in the middle of the book? That one math concept that drew her curiosity could be the key to making all the other pages relevant.” Rather than ‘getting through the material’ of the Haggada, consider spending less time on some areas and focus more on the parts that will interest your children. Let your child browse through and find their interests. Your animal loving child may want to hear more detail about one of the plagues. Buy a few frogs or locusts before Pesach and let them do a project on different species, their habits and what it would have been like for the Egyptians. The historian could research Egyptology. Let them visit a museum, explore hieroglyphics and discover the extent to which knowledge of Ancient Egypt enriches the Exodus story. The ideas are endless, but it all begins with the children and their questions.