Imagine you are a leader at the most momentous time in a new nation’s history; a nation about to be set free after hundreds of years of oppression and slavery. You are about to take them to freedom, the fulfilment of their hopes and dreams for many generations. At this critical moment, the nation is assembled and wants to hear your words before they embark on this journey of freedom and independence. What would you tell them?
Would you speak of the significance of being a free and independent people? Would you warn of the challenges that lie ahead? Or, perhaps, would you talk about the final goal, the ultimate purpose of their nationhood? All of these would be appropriate topics to speak about at this momentous juncture in a people’s history.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks likes to ask his audiences this question at this time of year because it was at this time of year, at Passover, that Moses found himself in this very position. He had assembled the Jewish people to tell them of their imminent freedom and he had their focused attention.
At this most significant time in our people’s history we would have expected Moses to give a rousing and inspiring speech along the lines of one of the themes mentioned above. But, oddly enough, in his big speech he didn’t talk about any of these lofty ideas. Rather, he spoke of something far different.
This is what he said:
“And when your children ask you, What does this ceremony mean to you?
And you shall answer them …” (Exodus 12:26-27).
“On that day tell your son, I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (13:8). “In days to come, when your son asks you, What does this mean? You shall say to him, With a strong hand God took us from Egypt” (13:14).
Moses had the entire nation assembled on the verge of becoming free, and he used that platform to speak about children asking questions and parents giving answers. He spoke of education.
Of course, children and education are very important to us Jews, but is that the most appropriate topic for a speech at the most profound point in our collective history?
Moses was sharing a very profound idea, something that, in our day and age, might be part of popular thinking, but was revolutionary in his time.
Moses was telling the Jewish people that, at that moment of transformation into nationhood, we must realize there is nothing more important than education to ensure our vibrancy and our longevity.
And not just any education. Moses was specific with the model of education he desired: a model in which children ask questions and parents give answers; a model in which children are empowered to ask, to challenge and to argue. A model that recognizes children must be respected, if they are to respect the values we are trying to transmit.
A culture of respect that breeds open dialogue is the ideal type of education. That is the secret to the vibrancy of a nation.
Moses was telling this to the Jewish people at a time when other nations of the world said it was power and military might that was the key to survival and vibrancy.
Moses has since been proven correct, and his words still speak to us today through the passage of time. Continuing to strive for excellence in education, both for our children and for ourselves as adults, is the only way to ensure our Jewish connection and vitality for many years into the future.