Never underestimate the power of a story to enlarge the moral imagination of a child

26 March 2010
haiti 2010 earthquake destruction

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 26th March 2010

On Monday night we, the members of the Jewish community, will be sitting down with our families to begin perhaps the oldest continuously observed religious ritual in the world, Pesach, Passover, the time when we remember the journey of our ancestors 33 centuries ago from slavery to freedom.

We don’t just remember. We re-enact, eating matzah, the unleavened bread of affliction, tasting maror, the bitter herbs of oppression, and drinking four cups of wine, each a stage in what Nelson Mandela called the long walk to freedom. And it all begins with the question asked by a child: "Why is this night different?" I can still picture in my mind those nights long ago when I was the child. They gave me my first induction into the ideals I’ve tried to carry with me into adult life, above all a sense of fellow feeling with others who suffer, eating their own bread of affliction.

I think of a friend of ours who, hearing about the earthquake in Haiti, managed to get there quickly and found people desperate for water. He found a 3,000 gallon container, located the nearest water purification plant, hired a lorry and brought water to a tent city of survivors in Port au Prince. It helped, but he could see that it wasn’t enough. So he got out his computer and started an email blog and within 48 hours he had offers of help from 200 others, and by the time he left he’d provided a water supply for 300,000 people until the infrastructure could be repaired.

I think of another friend, a woman in New York, who was watching a documentary about the plight of orphans in Rwanda ten years after the massacre. She thought immediately, I’m Jewish, I’m supposed to help, and so she began contacting people who’d had experience helping child survivors of the Holocaust, and within a few years they’d constructed the Agahozo Shalom youth village in Rwanda, housing 750 young people, teaching them advanced agricultural and computer skills, and training them to become leaders who can teach those skills to others.

Small acts, perhaps, but adult outcomes of the story of Passover, that taught us as children that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. Slaves can go free. The hungry can be fed. We can become God’s partners in the work of redemption. Never underestimate the power of a story to enlarge the moral imagination of a child.