I have just finished re-watching The Prince of Egypt, a longstanding Pesach ritual of mine. I have always loved this film, but lately I have been viewing it through different eyes. For a children’s film, the movie is surprisingly visceral when it comes to retelling the atrocities of the Egyptian decree to steal away into Jewish homes, take their sons and throw them into the Nile River. These scenes have been affecting me more and more as I grow older, reminding me that Pesach is not only a celebration of freedom from slavery, but also a commemoration of what our ancestors went through in order for us to attain the freedom we now take for granted.
In the 1950s the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated that during standard Seders we refer to the teaching that there are four types of Jewish children who attend these dinners. There is a wise son, who commits entirely to the practice of the Seder. There is a wicked son, who excludes himself from the practice but is still present at the Seder. There is a simple son, who takes the ritual of the Seder as it comes. And finally, there is a son who does not yet know enough to ask a question, who is to be taught the meaning of the Seder and of Pesach. However, the Rebbe spoke of a fifth son – the son that does not even make it to the Seder table. There are three reasons provided as to why this son may not attend a Seder: he has no place to attend a Seder, he does not care to attend a Seder or he does not know of Pesach or its accompanying Seder.
In today’s world, there are more ‘fifth sons’ than ever before. In 2014, 27% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 stated that they did not attend a Seder. Relatedly, the Pew Research Centre determined in 2013 that only one quarter of American Jews view religion as playing an important part in their life. It does not take a mathematician to determine that young Jews not attending Seders will lead to our next generation of Jewish families ceasing the practice altogether. That is not an equation I want to be a part of.
It may seem like a tiny thing, but I argue that this is massive. It is bigger than waning Synagogue membership numbers, bigger even than intermarriage. Jews are willingly saying that they are no longer interested in Jewish culture. The culture that our ancestors suffered for in Egypt, died for in Europe, fought for in Israel, is dying despite most valiant efforts to protect it.
When I hear of Jews that choose not to attend a Seder or don’t have one to go to, my heart breaks. My lip trembles when I think of all of those Jews that do not know about our deliverance out of Egypt, but my tears are reserved for those that do not care to find out.
My heart breaks for the fifth son in our collective Jewish family. And every year I wonder, will he ever come home?
But we must wipe the tears from our eyes and push on. Hope will never be lost, as long as we keep trying. No matter how our Seders may differ from traditional practices, we must ensure that we continue to conduct them. Remember the Shema: ‘Teach your children when you sit at home, when you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise’. It is our spiritual obligation that our progeny know not only what it is to be a Jew, but why.
Do not forget that in the same breath the Rebbe also stated: ‘We must make every effort to bring the absentee to the Seder table. Determined to do so, and driven by a deep sense of compassion and responsibility, we need have no fear of failure’.