For different people Passover will always bring to mind different things. For many people, Passover will always mean the frantic cleaning of the house for any trace of chametz – leavened food that is prohibited on Passover. For others it will bring to mind the matzah price wars between the supermarkets and local grocery stores. And for some, the genial atmosphere of the family meals springs to mind. However for me, Passover, and especially the Seder meal, has always been about the fifth son.
Allow me to explain. Passover is the festival which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and birth of the Jewish nation approximately 3300 years ago. In commanding us to teach our children about the Exodus, the Bible uses four distinct expressions, which the authors of the Haggadah, (the liturgical text used at the Pesach Seder), explained to refer to four types of children – the wise son, the wicked son, the simpleton and the clueless son – and gives the appropriate approach to each son.
However there is a fifth son, the lost son – the son that does not even reach the Passover Seder. The son who does not even know that there is a Passover Seder. It is this son that talks to me the most.
Having grown up in a family of educators, my father being a Headmaster, my mother a teacher and three of my brothers – community Rabbis, education has always been at the forefront of my life. Passover would exemplify this, with a cross-section of the Jewish community always present at my parents’ Seder table. As I grew up, I too yearned to reach out to the ‘fifth son’ and help unaffiliated Jews experience the beauty that is Passover.
My main field of operation in my early years as a Rabbi was the Ukraine. It was an incredible feeling to celebrate a Passover Seder in a former communist meeting hall, protected by members of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry Police (formally the K.G.B), helping 350 people regain their Jewish heritage that had been suppressed by the selfsame officers during the communist regime. It was heart-warming to hear tens of families, young and old, proclaim ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ the same declaration that Jews everywhere had been proclaiming for 2000 years, yet that a few short years earlier would have earned them a night-time visit for counter-revolutionary activity.
I remember my first communal Seder in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. We expected two hundred people, catered for three hundred, and hosted three hundred and fifty. From two hours before our published starting time, queues were beginning to form outside the doors and for three hours the hall was full of three hundred and fifty ‘fifth sons,’ relearning Jewish traditions.
Memories like these do not fade quickly. I keep them with me and they give me the impetus to carry the Passover message into the entire year, looking for the fifth son wherever Divine providence takes me.