Tomorrow night the Jewish festival of Pesach, or Passover, begins. It’s when we re-enact the story of the exodus from Egypt in the days of Moses. It’s a ritual that takes place not in the synagogue but at home around the table in the presence of the extended family – and it begins with questions asked by the youngest child. It’s a child centred ritual – and Judaism is a child centred faith.
I think children have suffered badly in the modern world. I’m not just thinking of the 30,000 who die every single day from preventable diseases; or the hundreds of millions who lack access to drinking water and medical help; or the tens of millions who have no education at all. I’m thinking of children closer to home. The ones who suffer the effects of the breakdown of the stable family. I’m thinking of the appalling rise in depressive illness, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and other stress related syndromes among the young. And the more than three million children who live in poverty, here in Britain, even in this age of affluence.
And there’s another kind of child poverty: emotional, psychological. More than children need money, they need their parents’ time. More than computer screens and video games they need our attention. More than mobile phones and credit cards, they need values to live by and a story that links them to the past and future, giving shape and direction to their lives.
The average child spends as much as 35 hours a week watching a screen but only 35 minutes a week talking to his or her father. And we’ve invented a form of self deception by calling this ‘quality time’, as if somehow you can cram 30 minutes of love into 3. If our average life expectancy were reduced by 90 per cent would we call that quality time?
In the long run, civilizations tend to become like the things they value most. Those that value lifeless things like material possessions, eventually become lifeless. Those that worship things that perish, themselves perish. The wealthiest and most powerful empires all eventually crumbled and turned to dust. Yet Judaism, the West’s oldest faith, still survives, not least I suspect because thirty three centuries ago, in the book of exodus, Moses told us never to forget to teach our story to our children. Civilizations that cherish the young, stay young. And that’s what we’ll be doing, this time with our grandchildren, tomorrow night.