High Holidays, repentance; Pesach, education

Growing up in Dallas, and attending one of the area’s largest synagogues, each holiday had its own distinct flavor and associations. The High Holidays represented a tedious mental marathon — staying hours in shul — with a few rest stops. We, the elementary school children, sat next to our parents in a packed room, antsy and confused by the complex service, while a visiting cantor chanted solemn psalms in unfamiliar melodies.
The rabbi’s sermon usually entailed a theatrical demonstration of intelligence that centered on a select theme, carefully injected with witty quotes and an unhealthy dose of personal political commentary, that tickled sympathizers, while infuriating certain intellectuals.
Shortly before the sermon, anticipating the upcoming stretch of boredom, we pleaded with our parents for a bathroom break. If they agreed, we quickly headed for the exit before the two men closest to the exit could lock us in. Once the sermon began, we were trapped. But outside the sanctuary doors, we felt free.
Roaming the empty halls with fresh excitement, we met up with friends, a gathering of kids from different schools around Dallas, who had also managed to escape. The fun lasted until one of the older members of the congregation spotted us laughing and socializing. He then marched down the hall, shouting and scolding the group for being outside the sanctuary (or youth classes), and did his best to chase each kid back from where they came. So went the High Holidays, year after year.
The Pesach Seder carried an entirely different vibe; it was our chance to participate. Even within the familiar passages of the Haggadah, there was always room for investigation and fresh insights. Though the event ran long, it imparted a unique Jewish experience, far more profound than steaming matzo ball soup or the 10 plagues with colorful props. It was a night of adventure, where we were transported in time. Imagination merged with ancient mystical memories. If the dogs suddenly barked during the meal, we half-joked it was because Elijah the Prophet must have entered the house for his cup of wine. As the evening wound down and I listened to my father lead the “benching” (Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals) at the top of his lungs, I wondered if, one day, I’d be able to do the same for my family and guests.
Indeed, Pesach is considered the prime opportunity for education. On Pesach, the focus is on teaching the children, connecting to our past and planting seeds for the future.
The focus on children
There are many rituals to fulfill on Pesach night — eating matzo, drinking four cups of wine, bitter herbs, telling the Exodus story well. One of the first and most memorable acts, however, is the dipping in salt water, a custom instituted to awaken the children’s curiosity. The rest of the remaining rituals, likewise, offer a multisensory, interactive, hands-on learning experience — the building blocks of early education.
Keeping the children’s interest and providing them with a fun experience at the table is only the first step. The real concern is what significant long-term messages we want to impart. One obvious objective is to reinforce the collective destiny — the struggle to emerge from a people of slaves to a nation of Torah scholars.
This generation is fortunately a step or two removed from the hardships of war times, and certainly the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt. Freedoms are easily taken for granted. As hosts and parents, we must therefore devote time to prepare before the holiday, then be considerate and creative in selecting which excerpts of the Haggadah to unravel, while ensuring all key mitzvot are fulfilled. The practical and challenging goal is to expound without letting the evening drag.
The main point of emphasis is cheirut — freedom. Freedom means different things to different people, but there is one aspect of freedom that is replayed in Jewish literature, and has nothing to do with physical comforts. A well-known but puzzling statement in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) stands out: “There is no free individual, except for someone who labors in Torah study.”
At first glance, this statement conveys that, through knowledge and wisdom, a person is set free, reminiscent of the line “the truth will set you free.” But knowledge itself is incomplete without parallel emotional growth and action. Perhaps the statement in Pirkei Avot refers more to one’s commitment to set aside time, throughout a busy year, to explore our rich heritage.
Laboring and feeling free appear to be contradictory. The long, hard Seder night contains an important lesson, both for adult and child. In Torah, a meaningful life involves embracing the grind and challenging yourself to grow, to be better and do more (in a spiritual context it’s called avodah).
I have noticed that people — especially “mystics,” guides or motivators who preach “living each day to the fullest” — often have no children to take care of, no sense of community, responsibility, or loyalty to a higher purpose. They choose to travel rather than host, partake rather than create. Their contrived raison d’être is simply to absorb the sights and sounds of the wonderful world around them — and take one giant vacation from worthwhile struggle.
The soul’s freedom and highest fulfillment is in giving. Her pleasure comes from progressing, and pain comes from inactivity. True joy is the result of working to change yourself and to heal the world in some part (tikkun olam), while sadness comes when we sense stagnation. So, when in someone’s pursuits, the primary focus becomes on retreat, relaxation time and mindfulness meditations, wherein the soul is only taking — something is subtly wrong. They sink deeper into the pits, a pleasant spiritual demise. All the while, the soul craves meaningful toil and mitzvahs.
Freedom stems from a connection to who you are and your purpose, despite the confines of a difficult external situation. But to get acquainted with yourself demands knowing your roots and where you’re going. Hence, the emphasis on learning Torah.
While we measure our High Holiday accomplishments by the level of repentance and resolutions, a successful Pesach rests in education and engaging discussion.

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