As families gather around the Seder table, they encounter the four children. Some take the position that the four children really represent different aspects of each individual person. I would like to share a story with you that examines the question: Can our presence at the Seder bring order to our lives and allow the different aspects of who we are to integrate as one person?
In the spring of 1975, I was serving as a Rabbinic Intern at Rochester Institute of Technology – National Technical Institute for the Deaf. We created the first Seder in Hebrew, English, and Sign Language. I was assisted by excellent interpreters so that the more than 60 hearing and deaf students could participate together. Among the students, there was a young man whose parents had flown to Rochester from Tennessee to be with their son.
At the end of the Seder, he approached me with a big grin and signed “Thank you, thank you, thank you ….” Then he began to sign more slowly and deliberately:
“I am the only deaf person in my family. As a kid, I remember just sitting at the Seder – lost. No one really signed to me – they were not very good at it yet. They sure didn’t know signs for Seder, Afikomen or Charosets. Finger spelling these words was useless; I was too young to spell big words. There I sat, ‘the child who does not know.’
After a couple of years, I got angry. This is YOUR Seder, YOUR Holy Day, not mine. I was ‘the wicked – angry – disconnected child.’
By high school, I knew enough to appreciate the idea of freedom. Still, I could not make the connections between the story, the food and my own enslavement as a silent, isolated, deaf Jew. I was ‘the simple child.’ Aware of being Jewish, but with no context.
Now, here, tonight, among hearing and deaf Jews, I’m using ‘Jewish signs’ that feel like they were always on my fingertips waiting to speak. Here with my family, but not just observing a Seder, I am for the first time, proud to be ‘a wise Jew.’ My life is like the full circle: the Jew who doesn’t know, the Jew who is disconnected, the simple Jew, and now, a real Jew with wisdom. Thank you.”
How many other Jews are left outside the circle? How many remain forever a child, forever separate and angry, forever wanting but not knowing how or what to ask? Whatever the challenges, physical, emotional, or intellectual, how often do we make the effort to provide the skills, the support, and the environment so that every Jew can aspire to be the wise child?
Rabbi Daniel T. Grossman has led Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for 25 years. He is a graduate of Temple University, Hebrew University, Mirkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem and the Reconstructionist Rabbincal College. Rabbi Grossman also works in the field of Jewish Special Education and co-wrote and participated in the video “Someone is Listening,” the story of a young deaf Jew and his search for fulfillment as a Jewish adult. Rabbi Grossman is also fluent in several sign languages.