Opinions | The fifth child the empty seat at our communal Passover table

The ancient rabbis who shaped the Passover haggadah were creative geniuses who captured the timeless story of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. The Exodus narrative has become the paradigmatic story for many political and social movements that use it as a foundation for the continuous journey of people on the road to freedom. And in the haggadah, the rabbis created an experience that allows each participant to feel as if he or she was actually a slave in Egypt and made the journey to freedom, making the seder perhaps the earliest example of experiential education, a powerful learning tool that comes from personally participating in something rather than simply hearing about it.  

Last weekend many Jews attended a seder, but many others did not. I find it heartbreaking when I think about all the Jews who chose not to participate. What are the implications of so many people not connecting to this paradigmatic story of the journey from enslavement to freedom? I hear more and more about people who did not attend a seder, that Passover observance is on the decline and that the Jewish community is not offering enough welcome and dynamic tables that are open and affordable to all.

Although I find the haggadah one of the most imaginative, insightful and timeless dramas ever created, this is a modern-day phenomena the rabbis did not anticipate. When they describe the four children — the wise one, the one who is angry, the innocent one and the one who does not know how to ask — they are operating under the assumption that everyone will be together at the seder table. They did not anticipate modernity and the fact that many Jews would no longer actually be there. They did not imagine the fifth child.

This fifth child is a lens into the perhaps the greatest challenge of contemporary Jewish life. For whatever reason, some people feel alienated, disconnected, or have made other activities a priority and don’t feel the need to be at the seder table. And without the fifth child present, we are not the same — we are an incomplete community; our tables have too many empty seats.

The greatest concern lies within the non-Orthodox community, many of whom have made the seder an

optional activity. A recent Pew Study showed that 70 percent of American Jews attended a seder in 2015; through the late 90s the percentage was around 90 percent.

We need much more than programmatic solutions like “audacious hospitality” (a well-intended term developed by the Reform movement) in order to reach the fifth child.  We need solutions that resonate with the fifth child. We need ideas that take us out of our comfort zone and push us to find way to welcome people back to the table. We need to thoughtfully listen to the reasons they are missing from our tables, in order to fully understand what’s going on.

The fifth child has become the third rail of Jewish life. We are scared to really examine the phenomenon, and we convince ourselves that things are great because we had a good seder. Passover remains the Jewish holiday that has the highest participation, yet it is on the decline. We will only really begin to stem the tide of assimilation and alienation when we start to listen to the fifth child, when we engage with creative, dynamic people with open minds who are finding solutions to some of the most vexing issues in the modern world — and when we really do an honest self-examination of the state of Jewish life.

We can only be free when more Jews come back to the table. For the fifth child reading this — we need you. For those of us who are one of the four children  — we need to dig deeper, look inward and listen better so that we can include the entire family, especially the growing number of fifth children.

On this holiday that is truly an anchor of Judaism, we are reminded of the power and responsibility of freedom. The creativity and imagination that freedom allows can fuel us to take action and find better ways to include the fifth child. When more people sit at the table of Jewish life on Pesach and throughout the year, when the tent of Jewish life is more tolerant and respectful of divergent views, we will include many more who will nurture and sustain us. With more thoughtful and comprehensive community involvement, the possibility of the fifth child returning to the seder table becomes a reality, which fills me with hope about our Jewish future.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Vice Chair of the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities and deeply committed to helping JFCS/East Bay and HIAS in their lifesaving work of resettling refugees.