Telling The Eternal Story

Telling The Eternal Story

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 4:44 p.m.
Torah Reading: Exodus 10:1-13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Havdalah: 5:46 p.m. 

In the Talmud, three is the critical number. Three generations, that is: the third generation is a turning point. But “turning point” to what? According to the Talmud’s Rabbi Yochanan, three successive generations of Torah scholars guarantee that “Torah will never depart from their offspring” [Bava Metzia 85a]. In the 20th century, sociologist Marcus Lee Hanson, however, warned that after three generations family traditions die.

For Rabbi Yochanan, a third generation ensures continuity. For Professor Hansen, it spells demise. Who is right?

Our own experience favors Hansen. His study of ethnic communities showed that immigrants (the first generation) love tradition. Their children reject their parents’ nostalgia. The grandchildren try to recover what their parents rejected. But the game ends there, at the third generation, because the fourth generation just doesn’t care.

American Jews today are living this fourth-generation nightmare, watching our young people identify as Jewish but remaining “neutral to negative” about Jewish causes, Jewish charity, Jewish learning, and a Jewish future.

But maybe Rabbi Yochanan is on to something. He is discussing Torah, not ethnicity, and our commentators cite him in connection with our sedra’s Passover commandment to tell our children the story of leaving Egypt.

Whether we have a future depends on what we take that story to be. Will it be historical memories of anti-Semitism, or even a Jewish state like all other states but speaking Hebrew on the streets — however much that moved so many of the older generations to tears of joy? Or will it be something eternal and profound: a call to believe in the Jewish mission of the centuries, of which both Israel and we may be a part?

Believing, alas, is what American Jews do most poorly. What matters more is the meaning we find, such as the meaning in the Passover story (told in this week’s reading, and the first five weeks of Shemot). Telling it at our seders should evoke gratitude and wonder at the sheer thought of being part of something transcendent: a Divine plan, no less — being covenanted into history to accomplish great expectations.

Most seders nowadays have traded in gratitude and wonder for fun family get-togethers, updated, perhaps, with activities and toy frogs to amuse the children. They may briefly flirt with seriousness when we enlarge the tale to include the Shoah and Israel, but, like it or not, these provide no transcendent meaning for too many in the fourth generation, the ones who Hansen says “just won’t care.” Yes, trips to Israel are important, and yes also, we should never forget the murdered Six Million, but neither is enough to sear the fourth generation’s soul the way it did  their elders’.

By contrast, what would happen if we treated the seder as earnestly as we do Yom Kippur? Not for confessions of sin but for professions of belief: the insistence that the grand design of history took a turn for the better when an ancient people said, “Enough of slavery! We are on our way to Sinai, to a life of promise, and to God.”

The Haggadah’s famous “Four Sons” directs that our response should vary with the wisdom, wickedness or foolishness of the child who asks. Our issue, however, is less the children asking than the parents answering. We are not “wicked,” but judging by how we squander the seder by replacing faith with fun, we are not all that “wise” either. Children should leave the seder table entranced, not entertained, by elders who believe they are still charged with a God-given task. Hearing their parents assert their faith in that age-old Jewish calling might really make this night “different from all other nights.”

Remember the child who doesn’t even know how to ask? We are the adults who don’t know how to answer. We are long on historical memory; short on faith that it means anything. And that is the recipe for disaster. Just ask Hansen.

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.


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