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Apr 4 2012

The (Other) Four Questions

By at 10:15 am
parting of the red sea

How do you explain this to a 2nd-grader?

I headed my first Passover seder when I was 7 years old. It was kind of de facto. My family and I had only lived in the US for a few months by that point, and my Soviet-born parents knew nothing about the holiday (save whispers they’d heard as children regarding matzah being secretly–and illegally–bought in the spring).

I, on the other hand, was attending a Jewish Day School! What did it matter that I barely spoke English, and my Hebrew was even worse (I passed most of the language period copying the strange letters on the blackboard into my notebook–left to right, I suspect–without the slightest idea of what they meant or stood for). I was, for better or for worse, the Passover expert.

When I got married, the situation repeated itself. My husband isn’t Jewish, and though he was perfectly game to host a seder at our apartment (“It’s a dinner party,” he told me. “What’s the big deal? I love dinner parties.”), the Jewish expertise would, by necessity, have to come from me.

Which is why, at Passover time, all questions–not just the traditional Four–are automatically directed my way. And, unlike what’s prescribed by the haggadah, they can come at any time before, after, and during the seder. (That is when it’s not being generally interrupted by a fuming toddler complaining, “I don’t want to read this menu anymore!”)

Last year, for instance, the first question of the evening came from my husband.

As we got to the part of the story where the Pharaoh’s daughter pulls the baby out of the Nile River and decides that she will call him Moses because it means “drawn out of the water,” my husband interrupted to ask, “In what language?”

“Hm?” I inquired, knowing exactly what he meant but hoping desperately to avoid it.

“In what language does Moses mean: Drawn out of the water?”

“Uh… Hebrew, I think.” (A quick check of Kveller and ThinkBabyNames.com–yes, right then and there; because that’s how truly geeky we are, and yup, Hebrew.)

“But, the Pharaoh’s daughter wouldn’t have been speaking Hebrew, would she?”

“Probably not, what with the whole killing every Jewish baby boy edict and all.”

“So she must have named him something else. Did she call him an Egyptian name that meant drawn out of the water, and then he changed it to the same thing in Hebrew? Or is this a translation, or what?”

“I don’t know. Let’s move on.”

The second question came from my oldest son, following Moses’ marriage to Zipporah.

“So Moses didn’t marry someone Jewish?”

“No. Zipporah was Midian.”

“But, I thought all Jews were supposed to marry Jews?”

“Well, no one is supposed to do anything. I mean, Daddy isn’t Jewish…”

“But, you are and you said that’s why we’re 100% Jewish, and it’s okay if the mother is Jewish no matter what the father is, but Moses didn’t…”

“Well, Moses was alone in the middle of the desert. He didn’t have a lot of choices…”

“No JDate,” my husband piped up.

“But, doesn’t that mean that Moses’ children weren’t Jewish, and then their children, and so…”

This little exchange led to further on the spot research which turned up a not particularly well known story about God trying to kill Moses (odd, considering what He had planned for the guy down the line), and how Zipporah, deciding she understood the root of His displeasure, saved Moses by personally circumcising one of their sons with a stone.

Ow.

At least my middle child’s question didn’t cause our male guests to double over with sympathy pains.

My 2nd-grader wanted to know all the details of the parting of the Red Sea. Did the waves stand up like they were frozen? Because maybe then it was just a sudden cold snap? Or maybe the water kind of poured away, like low tide? Could it have been a tornado like in The Wizard of Oz?

Actually yes, that last one. That’s exactly what scientists now think happened. A strong east wind, blowing at a constant speed of about 63 mph for 12 hours, could have pushed the water back at a bend where an ancient river is thought to have merged with a coastal lagoon along the Mediterranean. It happened in 1882. Which means maybe…

“But, why didn’t it blow away the people then, too?”

“I don’t know, honey.”

For all the linguistic and scientific and genealogical questions asked by my husband and sons, however, the kicker still came from my daughter, then 4 years old.

We’d just read the portion following the final plague: The death of every first-born son of Egypt.

“But, Mommy,” my little girl said. “I thought God was supposed to be the good guy in this story.”

Now, what do I look up to be able to answer that?

Because, for all the praying and praising and honoring that we Jews do, sometimes you’ve got to admit, our God has a lot of… bad days. And a yen for collective punishment. Not to mention the petty moments. (Like that instance with wanting to kill Moses over his sons not being circumcised.)

I wasn’t sure what to tell my daughter then, beyond putting the deaths of the Egyptian first-borns into context with the 10 plagues and Pharaoh’s repeated promises to let the Jews go, followed by his reneging. (“Moses should have said no-backsies,” was the consensus around our table.)

Luckily, that time, my kids were easily distracted by the plague goody bags one of our guests brought. But, I have no reason to think the question won’t come up again, under different circumstances. (Noah’s Ark, anyone? Sodom and Gomorrah? Heck, Adam and Eve!)

So, those with a deeper knowledge of Judaism than I–or just a better ability to think on their feet–what would you have said?


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