September 22, 2018

A Seder to Refine Our Character

So you’ve searched your house for chametz, the bread and other leavened foods we banish for Passover. But have you searched for the chametz inside of yourself? The “puffed-up” parts of you that you want to get rid of to reveal your better qualities? The stuff that clogs our spirit and prevents us from being our best selves? We invite you to light the candle of awareness and meditate through the chambers of your soul, seeking the built-up crustiness there. To mark Passover, here are four character traits to elevate as we conquer whatever enslaves us, and move toward our highest ideals. And hints on teaching them to kids.

1. CURIOSITY

Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles: Why is this night different from all other nights? The entire Passover seder is designed to spark curiosity. What’s that new item on the table? Why are we eating these strange combinations of foods? Curiosity is at the heart of all learning, all growth. On Passover, we celebrate the art of asking questions. Statesman and philanthropist Bernard Baruch once said: “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” Pirkei Avot teaches: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.” To have an attitude of engaged curiosity is to be open to the wonders around us, subtle and sublime.

Tamar Andrews: How do we spark curiosity in our children and in ourselves? By acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. We focus on the process of discovery rather than on the discovered. This means paying attention to the search, the quest and questions. It means kvelling when our children ask astute questions, not just when they answer correctly. We are all born intrinsically curious, but over time, we shy from asking questions and become stubborn in our own positions. We cultivate curiosity by changing the way we usually do things — as we do on Passover. This incongruity sparks questioning as our previous understandings are challenged. Sure, a persistently questioning child can be annoying, but consider the alternative: a child who just doesn’t care.

2. COURAGE

ZKM: The Exodus story is filled with people demonstrating courage. The Hebrew midwives defied Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male babies immediately. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, hid her baby and then sent him down the Nile in a reed basket. Pharaoh’s daughter drew the orphan out of the water and adopted him as her own. Moses and Aaron stood before the powerful Pharaoh demanding their people’s freedom. The battered Israelites mustered the strength to face the unknown wilderness. The rabbis say, “Who is strong? One who overpowers one’s inclinations.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1) In other words, true courage is about conquering our inner fears. Jewish educator Susan Freeman writes, “We mistakenly associate courage with might and power. … Real might and power means the incredible endurance, persistence and strength it takes to be a good person.”

TA:  Teaching courage is complicated because while we tend to view courage as looking strong and fearless, sometimes it feels more like anxiety or fear. Courage is the ability to push through fear and anxiety to do what is right. Being brave is not a constant feeling. It is allowing ourselves to be imperfect and not always being ready, but knowing that when the opportunity presents itself, we won’t cower. It can be brave just to try something new: a new haircut, a new food, speaking to a person you just met. Building courage requires repeated statements to a child: “That took a lot of courage to stand up in front of class and talk,” or “I am so proud of the way you stood up for your friend at school!” We teach by modeling physical and moral acts of courage and acknowledging them in others. Our children will need courage to learn to do things right and to do the right things.

3. KINDNESS

ZKM: One year, when Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-83) was too sick to supervise the baking of matzahs, his students asked him how to do it. He answered, “If you want the matzah to be truly kosher, be kind to the woman who kneads the dough. She is poor and a widow. Do not yell at her.” For Rabbi Salanter, the matzah was kosher if the workers were treated kindly. Judaism answers the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with a resounding “Yes!” On Passover and throughout the year, we emphasize that we were strangers in Egypt. Based on this, we have a responsibility to others who are afflicted. Elie Wiesel taught: “The emphasis on the other is paramount in Judaism.” Rabbi Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

TA:  We are born to be completely selfish. In fact, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget postulated that young children are egocentric, incapable of seeing a situation from someone else’s perspective. So young children have a knack for selfishness. Kindness is the exact opposite, as it requires one to be empathetic and generous. This quality does not come naturally, but it is also the trait most easily taught. Mirror neurons in the brain enable the modeling of kindness to be replicated by the child — at first because children enjoy copying what they see, and ultimately because it is intrinsically satisfying. So join that nonprofit and volunteer your time. Smile at and compliment people as much as possible. Truly embrace the notion of opening your door and your heart to people on Passover. Show your children how easily we can spread warmth and kindness throughout the world.

4. HUMILITY

ZKM: Amazingly, Moses’ name is mentioned only once in the haggadah. Wouldn’t you think it would be on every page? Torah teaches, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than anyone on earth.” (Numbers 12:3) Torah also hides the location of Moses’ burial place. Could it be that the greatest Prophet lies in an unmarked tomb? We live in a competitive culture that encourages showing off and exaggerated happiness. But all improvement starts with humility. On Passover, we do not hide our humble beginnings, rather we declare, “Avadim hayinu,” “We were slaves in the land of Egypt!” We eat the bread of poverty. We recount the story of the humble goat purchased for a mere two zuzim. We tell about the little child who doesn’t yet know how to ask a question. From this place of humility, we renew ourselves for the better.

TA: In today’s world of tweeters and Instagrammers who post only the best of themselves, it’s hard not to fall into the trap of “Look how awesome I am.” It has been said that a humble person doesn’t think less of himself, he simply thinks of himself less. The prophet Micah (6:8) asked, “What does God require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” With humility, the other character traits fall into place. To learn humility, we admit our mistakes to our children and to ourselves and raise children to be team players. We also encourage appropriate responses to success that acknowledge accomplishments but never to the point of arrogance. Finally, our children will become what we are, and so on this night of asking questions, let’s all ask, “Am I the person I want my child to become?”


Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and is the author of “Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah” and “Drawing in the Dust.”

Tamar Andrews, director of Temple Isaiah preschool, is an early childhood education professor, providing training and consultation to early childhood programs in the United States and abroad.