Among the long-term challenges of olim hadashim is achieving full fluency at speed in conversational Hebrew. We’re progressing, and I teach a few shiurim in Hebrew, but I’ve still got a long way to go, and sometimes feel frustrated. But I learned to cut myself some slack this week when a currently famous Israeli pop singer, Eden Ben-Zaken, created a little sensation when she made a tiny mistake in pronunciation in a well-known song. The occasion had significance. In preparation for this year’s Israel Independence Day celebrating the seventieth year of statehood, the classic Israeli pop song “Hallelujah,” – not the dark, powerfully heroic Leonard Cohen swan song but the sunny, upbeat winner of Eurovision 1979 – was updated and performed as a duet by the young Eden Ben-Zaken and the song’s original singer, Gali Atari, now a mature woman. It was a grand production with a large cast and complex logistics, but Ben-Zaken realized afterwards that her slight mispronunciation had altered the original meaning of a line and now they have to figure out whether to re-record or try to edit-in the correction. I’m consoled.
More significant than this little hiccup is the fact that the performance featured both the older and the younger singer together. It’s appropriate to the meaning of this seventieth year. It also happens to be a timely model for the Seder Pesach that calls for collaboration between the older and younger generations, as the Rambam explains:
רמב”ם הלכות חמץ ומצה פרק ז הלכה ב
מצוה להודיע לבנים ואפילו לא שאלו שנאמר והגדת לבנך, לפי דעתו של בן אביו מלמדו,
It is a mitzvah to inform the children, as it says “and you shall tell your child.” According to the mind of the child his father teaches him.
At the Seder the older generation entrusts the younger with the core narrative of the Jewish people: the Exodus from Egypt that is the model for all spiritual progress, as it says towards the end of the Maggid section of the Haggadah:
. רמב”ם הלכות חמץ ומצה נוסח ההגדה
לפיכך אנו חייבים להודות להלל לשבח לפאר לרומם לגדל ולהדר ולנצח למי שעשה לנו ולאבותינו את כל הנסים האלו והוציאנו מעבדות לחירות ומשעבוד לגאולה ומיגון לשמחה ומאבל ליום טוב ומאפלה לאור גדול, ונאמר לפניו הללויה.
Therefore we are obligated to thank and praise and glorify and exalt and magnify He Who accomplished for us and for our forefathers all these miracles, and brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from servitude to redemption, from despair to joy, from mourning to festival, from darkness to great light, and we will say before Him “Hallelujah!”
But the learning done at the Seder is not a one-way street. The Gemara Pesahim (116a) presents the discussion as a lively exchange of challenging questions and answers, an interplay between parents and children. The relationship between youth and age is one of the main themes of the Haggadah, and even plays out in a single individual:
רמב”ם הלכות חמץ ומצה נוסח ההגדה
אמר להם רבי אלעזר בן עזריה הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה ולא זכיתי שתאמר יציאת מצרים בלילות עד שדרשה בן זומא, שנאמר +דברים ט”ז+ למען תזכור את יום צאתך מארץ מצרים כל ימי חייך, ימי חייך הימים, כל ימי חייך הלילות, וחכמים אומרים ימי חייך העולם הזה, כל ימי חייך להביא את ימות המשיח.
Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says “behold I am like a seventy year old yet did not merit to know that you should mention the going out of Egypt every night until Ben Zoma interpreted, as it says “in order that you remember the day of your going out from Egypt all the days of your life (Dt. 16),” “the days of your life” is the days, “all the days of your life” is the nights. The Sages say “the days of your life – this world; “all the days of your life,” to bring the days of the Mashiach.
The Gemara Berakhot 28b notes that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says “I am Iike a seventy year old,” not that he was actually seventy, and explains that when he was a brilliant young scholar of eighteen, due to a leadership crisis, he was offered the position of Nasi and Rosh Yeshivah. He consulted his wife, who warned him that he didn’t yet have the necessary seniority, nor the sign of seniority – white hair. A miracle of sorts occurs and his hair turns suddenly white. The Hatam Sofer, citing the Rambam’s more naturalistic reading, goes into greater detail, explaining that age confers a wisdom that grants authority. He’s commenting on a passage in the Gemara Hullin in which Rav endorses an opinion of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah based on his seniority:
חתם סופר מסכת חולין דף פד עמוד א
צריכין אנו לחוש לדברי הזקן. י”ל עפ”י מ”ש רמב”ם בפי’ המשנה ספ”ק דברכות אמתניתין דארב”ע הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה וז”ל כי לא הי’ בן שבעים אלא צעיר לימים היו והיו מרבה לשנותו וללמוד ולקרותו יום ולילה עד שתשש כחו ונזרקה בו שיבה עכ”ל והיינו דאמר רב צריכין אנו לחוש לדברי הזקן ראב”ע שנזדקן מרוב חולשה
“We need to be concerned for the words of the elder”: One can explain this on the basis of what the Rambam says in interpreting the Mishnah at the end of the first chapter of Berakhot, on the Mishnah of “Rabbi Eleazar, behold I am like a seventy year old,” and this is what he says: “for he was not seventy, rather a youth and they increased his learning and teaching and calling him day and night until his strength weakened and he became shot through with white hair of age.” This is what Rav means when he says “we need to be concerned for the words of the elder, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who became [prematurely] old from weakness…”
The Rambam here is probably projecting his own exhausting experience of community leadership (see his letter to Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibbon). The general point is that despite his earned seniority and erudition, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was able to learn something new from Ben Zoma. The Haggadah quotes this passage from the Gemara as a model, that we should be ready and open to learn from each other around the Seder table, young and old together, to share new insights into the events of the Exodus as described in the Written and Oral Torah and reflected in our own lives. At the Seder we sing together a generational duet. As Moshe Rabbenu insists when Paro tells him only the men should leave to worship:
שמות פרק י
(ט) ויאמר משה בנערינו ובזקנינו נלך בבנינו ובבנותנו בצאננו ובבקרנו נלך כי חג יקוק לנו:
And Moshe said “with our youth and our elders we shall go, with our sons and our daughters, with our sheep and our cattle we shall go, for we have a festival for HaShem.
And we are still going with our youth and our elders, our sons and daughters, celebrating Pesach together, celebrating Israel at seventy together, learning together by sharing the wisdom of experience and the creativity of fresh insight. At the Seder Pesach not only do we transmit our core narrative, but we convey the principle that has helped make us the eternal people.