Depending on your point of view, the student leaders of last weekend’s March for Our Lives, as well as the hundreds of thousands who joined them in the protest against gun violence, are either prophets or pretenders. They’re either victims or instigators, citizens or con artists, wise counsellors or soulless dopes.
That there’s even a debate — and with such drastic extremes — is a sad indictment of our society … as if the slaughter of 17 teenagers and staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla., wasn’t enough evidence to show that something most certainly is rotten in the state of our union.
For those who see in these eloquent but green social justice warriors the coming of the messiah, I’m sorry to say that nothing they’ve said will prove the magic potion to right the wrongs of either gun violence, legislative incompetence or the lack of civil discourse.
Theirs was a protest — one of the largest, loudest and most dramatic of all in recent memory — but protests do not make policy. That must come through sustained action, day after day, week after week, month after month in the form of other rallies, speeches, phone calls, letters and voting.
But for those who have been so quick to dismiss these students, some as young as 11, because they are too young to vote, I’m equally sorry to say that you’ve missed the entire point. There is indeed a strain among some to believe that children should be seen and not heard, that they should do as we say and not as we do. That is not the Jewish way, and no less than the Passover haggadah we will all read this weekend is the proof.
In my house — as I’m sure is the case in most of yours — the high point of the seder actually comes right at the beginning, first with the saying of Mah Nishtana and followed by the recitation of the passage of the Four Sons. While we go around the table, youngest to oldest, to give each child a chance to show off and sing the four questions — sometimes, in multiple languages — our own custom is also for each participant to ask the questions as well. The message is that we are all children in the eyes of the One Above.
We then battle it out to decide who gets to act out the “wise son,” who the “evil son,” who the “simple son” and who the one who doesn’t know enough to ask. (It’s always interesting to see who begs to be the “wise son” and who has the best voice to offer as their impression of the “evil son.”)
Some commentators teach that far from holding up the “wise son” as the paragon of virtue, the fact that the haggadah includes all Four Sons in its retelling means that each has something to give. Other commentators equate each of the sons with a different spiritual aspect, meaning that each one of us appears wise, evil and so on.
Again, that they are all present at the table means that at all times and in all circumstances, the Pesach experience is always available, no matter the person, to provide a semblance of freedom — as well as the drive to actually achieve it.
The whole exercise of the questions and the Four Sons, especially when tied to the idea that one of the reasons why we do things differently during the seder is to prompt a child to ask questions, points to children being the central characters in the Pesach retelling.
The redemption wasn’t simply for the generation that came out of Egypt; it was also — perhaps even fundamentally so — for their children and grandchildren. But not only is everything about the seder specifically done on behalf of the children, they must also participate in it for the seder to have its desired effect.
Age is never the guarantor of wisdom; in some cases, it even signals its decline.
As the seder demonstrates, to write anyone off as too young to contribute not only does a disservice to the one being written off, it also means that your own accomplishments will suffer. Instead of seeing the ones marching in Washington, D.C. — or here in Philadelphia — as either saints or the vociferous mob, I see them as individuals all whose passion gives them a seat at the table and the right to be heard.
Some of them are certainly wise, some might be evil, some are probably simple and some may not even know enough to ask questions, but all of them are necessary for the future of this country.
May their courage to speak up provide each of us the inspiration to stand up for what we are passionate about.
Chag kasher v’sameach.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.