Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Join us each week as we journey across the United States and gather words of Torah from rabbanim representing each of the fifty states. This week we are pleased to feature divrei Torah from Rabbi Leib Bolel of Des Moines, Iowa.

 

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I vividly recall in my very early childhood standing up and singing the “Mah Nishtana” at the Seder table. While this may be a memory many of us recall, I believe that there is uniqueness to what we do at the Seder that sets a precedence for Jewish education and life itself.

The lessons embedded within the ancient text of the Haggadah are numerous with a specific emphasis on “Vehigadta L’vincha – And you shall tell your children” (Shemot 13:8), recounting and educating our children about the miracles Hashem performed for the Jewish nation during the exodus from Egypt.

Association would normally align Jewish impactful events with the synagogue, but interestingly, the Seder takes place in our homes. This is not mere coincidence, as we realize that the focal point of the Seder is our children.  This may be why my mind most prominently recalls the Seder and my participation in it, far more than other things that occurred during the same time period.

I have often been told by educators, and have noticed myself as a parent, that children are like sponges; their ability to absorb information and experiences surpasses that of those who are older. Children are very impressionable, which heightens the responsibility of parents and educators to teach them in the most conducive manner.

In reality, our very existence has depended upon the education we provide for our children. At a recent talk I attended, Noble Laureate prizewinner Elie Wiesel repeatedly stressed the importance of teaching our children the meaning of the words “Never Again.” Wiesel emphasized that if we don’t ensure that our children truly process the message, it will not be passed on to the next generation. Clearly, this would be a disaster for the Jewish People.

Outside of the High Holidays, Pesach is probably the most celebrated biblical holiday for the majority of Jews. Regardless of affiliation, or lack thereof, there is something sentimental about Pesach that speaks to every Jew. The “Mah Nishtana” is sung by young and old alike, as are the passages from “The Four Sons” and “Dayeinu.” It simply does something to us. It is a reminder of not just who we are as a nation and of our history, but more importantly, it challenges us to ask ourselves and each other: “What does it mean to be Jewish?”

Yes, the emphasis must be on the next generation – our children – but what if we are not knowledgeable ourselves?

We live in an era in which many of the things we do, specifically religious, are done out of habit. Why do we do them? For many it is because that is what we were taught, or because that is what our parents did. However, understanding why we do things helps us grow spiritually as Jews.

For a deeper understanding, we need to look no further than the Haggadah. The wise son asks: “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that God, our God, has commanded you?” (Devraim 6:20). Why is this son considered wise for asking this question? He is wise because he is seeking to attain greater knowledge. Without asking, he will not get the information.

Sitting at the Seder tale and recounting what our ancestors experienced for the first time as a nation, is just the starting point of the Haggadah. In essence this history whispers to us, “Continue reading, and ask about your heritage. What brought you to this night, 3,500 years after these events took place?”

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Rabbi Bolel has been serving as the rabbi of Beth El Jacob Synagogue in Des Moines-Iowa for four years. In addition to serving as Community Rabbi, he is the founder of JSOC (Jewish Students On Campus), an outreach program on multiple university campuses in Iowa, heads the Chevra Kaddisha and is the only pulpit “Ironman” triathlete rabbi in the world. Rabbi Bolel is married to Devorah and has two boys.