By Rabbi Elie Mischel
Have you ever walked with a child and had the following experience? You are on the way to school, or it is time to leave the park and go home. But whereas you are walking briskly, conscious of the time and where you have to be next, your four-year-old has stopped walking, completely mesmerized by an ant crawling out of a crack in the sidewalk. “Mommy – look!!” they yell with an intensity that matches your stress about being late to your next appointment. And at that moment, when you’re caught between your own sense of urgency and your child’s amazement, you have experienced the fundamental difference between adults and children.
Children experience the world in an inherently different way than we do. Rachel Sebba, an Israeli researcher, investigated the way children relate to the environment. Her findings prove what we already know anecdotally: that children experience the natural environment “in a deep and direct manner, not as a background for events, but, rather, as a factor and stimulator.” Meaning, the things that we, as adults, no longer notice, the vast majority of the world which our minds no longer pay attention to, these are the things that children, with new fresh minds and a lack of worldly experience, will notice.
For example, children notice the cracks in the sidewalks, the bushes, the trees, and the pigeons. They see the clouds in the sky and count the stripes on your tie. As adults, we no longer see these things; but children do. What is background for us is front and center for our children! And they see these things with wonder.
Though adults and children most often experience the world very differently, on the first night of Passover we are all supposed to be like children. How?
The meal eaten on the first night of Passover is called the seder. At the seder, we discuss the Exodus from Egypt in a question and answer format. The discussion starts with four questions, asked by the youngest children at the meal. It is so sweet to see the children nervously looking around, feeling shy, as they quietly begin to sing the four questions. These questions are new to them and they often stumble over the words.
But if there are no children at the seder, Jewish law dictates that an adult must ask the questions. And if a person is having the seder meal alone, he must ask himself the questions. Why must an adult ask questions they already know the answers to?
The answer lies in the fundamental difference between how children and adults experience the world. As we mentioned, children experience the world with wonder. In fact, when an adult experiences a moment of incredible wonder and amazement, the experience is called “childlike wonder.” Wonder is, the phrase implies, the domain of children. To be a child is to question, to wonder and to be amazed. Our children teach us how to see everything as if we are seeing it for the first time, without preconceived notions. Children understand, intuitively, how to see things with an open mind.
This childlike quality of wonder is at the foundation of science, and it strikes to the core of the religious personality as well. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish thinker of the 20th century, believed that “wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude alone is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things.”
The purpose of the seder is to become children. One night a year we are commanded to stop moving, sit down at the table, talk about the awesome events of the Exodus from Egypt and be amazed! We mention the Exodus and the incredible miracles God performed for our people on a daily basis, many times a day. It is, therefore, inevitable that as adults these miracles should come to seem old hat. There is no way to escape it. And so, once a year, we are given the Passover seder – an opportunity to shake ourselves out of adulthood and right back into childhood!
This explains the law that if there are no children at the table, or even if we are alone, we still must ask the four questions. Because on seder night, we are obligated to be like children.
We spend so much of our adult lives rushing, running, moving from one responsibility to the next. The message of Passover is that sometimes we need to slow down. We need to make time to experience the world around us, to wonder, to reconnect with our inner children.
Let us embrace the childlike quality of wonder and let it guide us towards a deeper appreciation of the world and those around us. Let us ask questions, challenge assumptions, and be open to new experiences. Let us remember that even in the midst of our busy adult lives, we can still access the wonder and magic of childhood.
This Passover, let us slow down. Let us remember the past and experience the present with fresh eyes and an open heart. And may this childlike wonder bring us closer to each other, to our traditions, and to God.