Yesterday morning I was listening to the latest news from Libya, where the situation is still fraught and full of risk, and then I went on to one of our Jewish primary schools where the children were preparing for the festival of Passover which begins on Monday night. And that strange juxtaposition between the Jewish festival of freedom and the fight for it today in so many parts of the world set me thinking about the way the search for liberty has played itself out throughout human history.
Today we tend to think about the fight for freedom in terms of uprisings, protests, demonstrations and rebellions, the kind of events that play themselves out on our television screens and in the news. But what Moses does in the Bible, and what still shapes the way we celebrate Passover today, is counterintuitive, unexpected.
True the biblical story is full of signs, wonders and miracles, but when Moses assembles the people just before they’re about to set out on their long walk to freedom, he talks about children and the distant future and the need to explain to them what has happened and why. And ever since, for more than three thousand years, that’s what we do on Passover.
We gather as extended families at home around the dining table, and pass the story on across the generations, experiencing each year afresh the taste of the unleavened bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery. And the whole ritual is set in motion by the questions asked by the youngest child present. For most of us, certainly for me, asking Mah nishtana halayla hazeh, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” was my first religious experience, my earliest Jewish memory.
It was as if Moses was saying, you can’t always rely on miracles. The best way of keeping the flame of freedom alive is to teach your children to cherish it, work for it, savour it, taste it. Get them to ask questions. Teach them the story in a way that fires their imagination and becomes part of their identity. Passover is the most child-centred of festivals. It’s our apprenticeship in liberty.
Too many times, political revolutions have begun as dreams of utopia only to end in nightmares of repression. The faces change but the script remains. If Passover has one message that still rings true, it’s that, though politics moves the pieces education changes lives. The fate of freedom in the future depends on what we teach our children today.