A 19th-century Ukrainian art print of a family seder
A 19th-century Ukrainian art print of a family seder

On Passover, remembering the past means imagining the future

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student named Elizabeth Newton earned her Ph.D. in psychology by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Each tapper was asked to choose a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm of that song on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped out.

Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners correctly identified only three!

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology: Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50 percent. Why were they off the mark?

If you are the tapper, it’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. If you’re the listener you can’t hear that tune — all you can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a discombobulated Morse code. In the experiment, tappers could not understand why the listeners had to work so hard to pick up the tune. Wasn’t the song obvious? The problem is that tappers had knowledge — the song title — that made it very hard for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. They couldn’t imagine what it was like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.

That gap in understanding was the same challenge that faced the Jewish people who came out of Egypt. They had first-hand knowledge because of their own experience: They heard God, saw His wonders and experienced God’s presence. How then could they communicate that knowledge, the Divine melody of Judaism and its ideals of justice, righteousness and compassion, to the next generation who were not there?

The answer given by Moses is this: Just as the Jews were about to leave Egypt, Moses gathered them and spoke to them about children and the distant future, and their responsibility to share their knowledge with generations yet unborn.

“And when, in the distant future, your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that God brought us out from Egypt’” (Exodus 13:14).

Pass forward the memory of this moment to your children, said Moses. You have to teach children how to build a society unlike Egypt, based not on wealth or power, but on justice and compassion, the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of human life — a society that honors the word of God. You have to continually remind them of the lessons of history — “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” — because those who forget the bitterness of slavery eventually lose the will and the courage to fight for freedom.

Teach your children these things. But do not do so in a harsh way. Do it in an exciting way. Encourage your children to ask questions, make a Passover seder, and re-enact the Exodus by reliving the events each year as if they were happening now. In other words, re-create your “tapper” experience so the “listeners” will understand it. That is how each generation hands on to the next what it has heard, learned, and prayed for.

The most important statement in all of the haggadah says, “In every generation, each person must see himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt.” As we read the haggadah, we make the leap across time and turn past into present, saying “It is because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.” The “listener” becomes a “tapper” as the past lives on in us.

Ten years before the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, an earlier plan was offered that would have given the aspiring Jewish state a meager parcel of land, militarily indefensible and economically not viable. David Ben-Gurion, head of what was then called the Provisional Jewish State, was unsure whether to accept that 1937 offer.

Ben-Gurion sought advice from Yitzhak Tabenkin, a founder of kibbutz movement. Tabenkin said he needed 24 hours to seek the counsel of two individuals. The next day, Tabenkin advised Ben-Gurion to reject the plan.

Who were his advisers?

Tabenkin responded, “I sought counsel from my grandfather who died 10 years ago, and my grandson who is not yet born.”

That recognition of the continuity between past, present and future should guide us on Passover, when it is our turn to “tap” and to “listen,” to make sure we understand the story, and then add our piece to it for generations yet to come.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world.