Mordechai Silverstein

The Price of Perpetuity

Parshat Bo frames not only the events of the redemption of the children of Israel in real time (Pesah Mitzrayim); it also delineates its observance throughout the generations (Pesah L’dorot), so that the story of the origins of the Jewish people should survive in perpetuity. This concern seems always to have been a Jewish obsession, perhaps because the Jewish people have always thrived/survived as a minority by paying attention to this problem. In outlining the observance of this significant holiday for the future, this focus is brought to a fore:

And you shall keep this thing as a statute for you and your children, everlasting. And so, when you come onto the land that the Lord will give you as He has spoken, you shall keep this service. And so should your child ask you, ‘What is this service to you?,’ you shall say: ‘A Pesah sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He scourged Egypt and our households, He rescued.’ And the people bowed and did obeisance. (Exodus 12:25-27)

The question “What is this service to you?” is familiar to all as the question posed by the “rasha – the wicked son” at the Pesah seder. Taken out of context and focusing on the words “to you”, this interpretation understands this question as being indicative of an individual who excludes him or herself from identifying with the group and its story.

Another midrashic tradition, from the period of the Mishnah, uses this passage to focus on other rabbinic/Jewish obsessions with survival:

Bad tidings were announced to Israel at that time, namely, that the Torah would ultimately be forgotten. But there are others who say, it was good tidings that were announced to Israel at that time, since they were destined to see children and children’s children, as it says: ‘And the people bowed and did obeisance’ (Mekhita d’Rabbi Yishmael Bo 12, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 41)

Instead of the presumption of individual malice expressed in the passage from the Haggadah, this midrash focuses on other existential challenges faced by the Jewish people. To understand this midrash’s “bad tidings”, we have to read the question “What is this service to you?” differently. Here, this question is intended to imply that there might come a time when there is no one left who has even the most minimal knowledge of the tradition, its stories and its practices – that everything will have been forgotten. Lest you think that this plight might refer exclusively to the present generation, remember that much of the Jewish tradition was maintained orally and that the danger of forgetting was very real. (See Tosefta Eduyot chapter 1.) In our generation, the fear is not only forgetfulness, the danger is of total ignorance and illiteracy.

As for the “good tidings”, this midrash teased this idea from the words “for you and your children, everlasting” and from the fact that the “people bowed and did obeisance”, indicating for the author of this midrash that with all of the problems, future generations would still show enthusiasm in their relationship to being Jews and in their worship of God.

What will be of the Jewish people and its connection to its tradition? The challenge is to be found not only in the bad tidings both also in the good tidings as well. We must forge a dynamic path in the future to restore a sense of Jewish memory in our people so that there is a reason to be connected. This coupled with a fiery enthusiasm for being Jewish will guarantee the yearned for perpetuity.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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