Passover Teachings from Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, z"l, Ph.D. - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Passover Teachings from Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, z"l, Ph.D.

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Wishing you and your loved ones a joyful and sweet Pesach!


The Four Children

"The Four Children" in Haggadah, Ms. 445, Hamburg/Altona, 1740-41; Collection of the Klau Library, HUC-JIR/Cincinnati 

The Torah spoke of four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask.

What does the wise one say? What are the laws and statutes that God has commanded you? How do you believe Jewish life should be lived? While we may differ in our interpretations, we share many of the same sacred texts, history and commitments. I become a better Jew myself when I learn from those around me who hold varied opinions.

What does the wicked one say? What is this worship to you? To you—which is to say, the wicked one passes judgment on the decisions of others in highly negative and self-righteous ways, seeking not to understand but to denigrate and alienate. The wicked one questions the integrity of anyone who interprets tradition differently, and thus denies the essence of a unified and pluralistic Jewish community. You should set this wicked one’s teeth on edge, and say: “This is what God did for me, when I came out of Egypt,” as a varied and diverse community, to worship God in manifold ways.

What does the simple one say: “What is this?” And you say: “With a strong hand and an outstretched arm, God brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” Taking away the rights of another to worship in freedom is anathema to God. Let us work to ensure that it does not recur anywhere in this world.

And the one who does not know how to ask? Monolithic interpretations of religion ultimately disenfranchise Jews who might be open to Judaism and push them farther away. So long as Israel does not embrace religious freedom, we can be sure that many more will never learn how to ask. Let us open up the subject, as it is written: “and tell your child on that day, saying: ‘It is because God did this for me when I left Egypt.’” In Israel’s initial redemption, God gave each of us the freedom to build our own unique understanding of Jewish life.

Passover, our season of redemption and freedom, reminds us once again of the world we seek to build—a world of respect for diverse Jewish approaches, in Israel and around the globe. As we celebrate God’s deliverance so long ago, let us remember that we must always actively protect religious freedom. Redemption is not an act that happened once and is complete, rather let us make it an ongoing process around which our community can come together to build a world of fairness, respect and justice for all.