January 9, 2003
On Account of This
Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
"I have a dream." With those magical words, the great leader of a generation began a speech that still quickens hearts today.
This month, we will be celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose visionary leadership animated much of this country in years gone by. How much of his dream has been realized? Perhaps we are less judgmental of others based on the "color of their skin" -- but does the "content of their character" really matter? We are much closer to the attitude expressed by Bertrand Russell, the eminent philosopher, who responded to the revelation of his affair with a female student with the bon mot: "You don't have to be a triangle to teach geometry." In other words, who I am is irrelevant to what I teach.
The attitude that underlies this sharp retort is widely reflected in Western society today. We have resigned ourselves to the sad perspective that the moral standards of our leaders need not correspond to the messages they broadcast, to wit: the message trumps the man. It seems that Russell has similarly trumped King -- and we are much the poorer for that.
Where does our tradition stand on this challenge? A simple two-letter word at the end of our parsha decries the Russellian approach -- and gives us much insight into the successful 2,500-year record of Jewish education.
After instructing the Israelites to observe the Feast of Matzot every year, Moshe charges the people to teach their children about their own history. "And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, 'It is because of that which Hashem did for me when I left Egypt'" (Exodus 13:8).
As we are taught in the haggadah, this command is directed to the parents of the simplest child, the one who can't even formulate a question. We are not to wait for his question, but to initiate the conversation by telling him that God took us out of Egypt "for this." But, what is zeh (this)?
The haggadah itself holds the answer: "Ba'avur zeh: this mitzvah only applies when the unleavened bread [matzah] and bitter herbs [maror] are set before you."
We cannot achieve optimal success as parents if we try to teach our children about our history while cleaning the house -- or on the way to soccer. We need to be at the table -- together -- with the symbols that bring that history to life situated before us.
The great Swiss educator Jean Piaget observed that young children respond to "hands-on" education, to models they can see and touch. The same is true throughout our lives; we are most inspired by those who not only have great lessons to impart, but whose lives are the "matzah and maror on the table."
To teach our children, we must set a living example of the lessons before them on their table.
On Dec. 27, we were taught a lesson in courage -- literally under fire -- by a young hero in Otniel. Twenty-three-year-old Staff Sgt. Noam Apter was on kitchen duty at the Yeshiva Jewish school of Otnie when terrorists entered through the back door at the onset of Shabbat and began shooting. Apter was mortally wounded, but crawled to the door between the kitchen and the dining hall, placed himself in front of the door and locked it, threwaway the keys with his final breaths -- and saved the 100 young men who were in the adjoining room.
Apter will always be a hero to us, a hero who taught a lesson by deed, not by words alone. This remarkable young soldier pointed to the dining room and his 100 "guests" and said: Ba'avur zeh -- it is on account of these that I act.
If we are to work towards a realization of the great vision of Dr. King, we need to incorporate "zeh" into our lives and teach our children by providing them with a living example of the morals we espouse. That one day our children will "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the associate director of Project Next Step.