Fresh from the library, I snuggled up on the couch with my (firstborn) son as we opened up a children’s book about Passover. After attempting to explain what slavery was –“They had to work very hard and never got to rest or play” we came to the section about the 10 plagues. With my son nestled against my arm, suddenly a lump formed in my throat. After reading about frogs and locusts, I skipped the tenth plague–the death of the first born. I just couldn’t read it.
My son is at the age where nothing gets past him. Every word he doesn’t understand gets questioned. And how on earth would I explain that one? Especially after I just yelled at him for pushing his baby sister. I mean, how can I teach him to be nice to his sister, if God is killing firstborn children?
So, we read on. We reached the Crossing of the Red Sea. Remember, here the Israelites flee the Egyptian soldiers and God suddenly parts the Red Sea. The Israelites walk on dry ground safely across, while the Egyptian soldiers get caught in the water and drown. Only in my version they didn’t. “And the water came back and all of the soldiers had to swim back to shore,” I quickly edit.
“All the soldiers knew how to swim?” My bright son asks. His big, green eyes blinking into mine.
And I realize that I am the one who is drowning. The lies will have to continue, and one day he will hear the real version and say, “No. No. The soldiers didn’t sink to the bottom of the Red Sea. My mom told me. They swam back to shore.”
This kills me because I have always said that one of my favorite things about being a Jewish parent is not having to make stuff up. There is no pretending that Santa Claus came. No basket from the Easter Bunny. At Passover there is the possibility of Elijah. We set a place for him, open the door and fill his cup just in case he decides to make an appearance, but we don’t pretend that he is eating dinner with us.
So, why am I lying as I read my son the Passover story? Have I become one of those dreaded, over-sheltering, helicopter parents? Or, am I just protecting my four-and-a-half-year-old from hearing details that are legitimately not appropriate for his age?
In The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel urges us over-sheltering, over-indulgent parents to “Let your children learn from a skinned knee.” Let life’s bumps and bruises be lessons in resilience. But what do we do with the world’s problems that are deeper and more painful than a skinned knee? When will my son be ready to hear the real story? What is the appropriate time to tell him about war and climate change? When will he be old enough to learn about the Holocaust?
This is a part of parenting I am not prepared for. My problem is I don’t want him to know that the world I brought him into isn’t perfect. I can teach him about Tikkun Olam, the Jewish mandate to repair the world, but does he have to know how much work there really is?
Elijah, could you really come to our seder this Passover? It would make my job a lot easier.