The Sixth Child
This Passover, Children will ask about Ukraine.
In light of Bucha, what do we tell them?
That we must never avert our eyes.
The Passover Haggadah speaks of Four Children who ask about the Exodus from Egypt. Back in the late 20th century, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg suggested that we add a Fifth Child, the one who did not survive the Holocaust. Perhaps now there is a sixth. This post-Holocaust child is alive and well and sitting at our Seders, eager to understand how something that happened eight decades ago affects their own life, and how that very real event could possibly be squared with the story of Moses, the plagues, the miracles of Sinai and a supposedly omniscient God.
“What meaning can this Seder have,” this Sixth Child asks, “in a world that’s seen such unbounded evil?”
Next week, as Jews sit down to Seders across the world, the Sixth Child will ask most urgently about Ukraine, and how the world could allow genocide to happen yet again. We have no choice but to answer them, and to teach them that they were born to be witnesses to the crime of genocide wherever it occurs. And then we must proceed to tell the story, of a Russian Pharaoh so evil that he tried to murder an entire country.
Our answer, ultimately, must be that, as much as we wish to change the channel from the horrors we are seeing, we must never avert our eyes.
We’ll still sing and schmooze and snack on sweet haroset. We’ll dance and laugh and hide the afikomen, and once again strain to rise from eight decades of shiva and turn Hitler’s demise into a more lasting victory for humankind. But this year’s Seders will be dead serious, as we shuttle in time from the embattled academies of Bnai Brak to the bunkers of Kharkiv . Conceding that we can no longer count on divine assistance to settle disputes—and in fact bowing to the knowledge that it is downright dangerous to see divine purpose in the course of international events—we’ll roll up our sleeves and begin melding swords into plowshares on our own. But we’ll concede, as Ukraine has taught us, that sometimes the plowshares have to be repurposed into old Soviet tanks first.
“About two decades ago, when my oldest son was three, his pre-school commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day as it did every year. My son did not understand much of what he was told, and he came home confused and frightened. “Dad, what are Nazis? What did they do? Why did they do it?” And I did not want to tell him. I, who had grown up amid the silence and fragmented whispers that had filled me with so many fears and nightmares, who had written a book about a boy who almost loses his mind because of his parents’ silence, suddenly understood my parents and my friends’ parents who chose to be mute.
“I felt that if I told him, if I even so much as cautiously alluded to what had happened over there, something in the purity of my three-year-old son would be polluted; that from the moment such possibilities of cruelty were formulated in his childlike, innocent consciousness, he would never again be the same child.”
The child must be told. There is a time for speech and a time for silence, a time for cryptic, fragmented whispers—and a time to openly explain precisely why it is so important for us to become living witnesses. That requires, at least for teens on up, a curated but-not-too-edited viewing of the scenes from Bucha.
For Jews, the most repeated verse of the Torah is the one from Deuteronomy 6 known as the Sh’ma:
Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!
When you look in a Torah scroll at this sentence, one thing becomes immediately clear, even to a person who does not read Hebrew. Two letters are larger than the rest, the final letters of the word Sh’ma and Echad—the ayin and the daled.
Commentators have speculated that the reason for the two enlarged letters is that when you put the ayin and daled together, you get the word “Ayd.” Witness. There is something about the Sh’ma that calls on each of us to bear witness.
Unlike most Hebrew blessings, there is no place to say “Amen” after the Sh’ma. Typically, if we respond “Amen” we have fulfilled the responsibility of saying that prayer. Not so with the Sh’ma. Each person must actively recite it, usually in full voice, so that we can hear ourselves affirming divine unity, each of us bearing witness to it on our own.
Amen is what bystanders say. Amen is the polite applause after a chamber concert. Amen is the nod of agreement after a sermon or the broad smile after a bar mitzvah speech. Amen is clicking “like” on Facebook.
Amen is what spectators do. The Sh’ma is for witnesses.
And so is the Seder.
“We were all slaves to Pharoah in Egypt” is the chant recited right after the child asks the Four Questions. We not only bear witness to the suffering of our ancestors; we become them. We are Rabbi Akiva, burned at the stake in the first century, with the Sh’ma on his lips. We are the martyrs of the First Crusade in 1096, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the Czarist pogroms and the Holocaust. And in recent decades, we are witnesses to people from all backgrounds who have borne the brunt of genocidal terror, from Cambodia and Rwanda to Syria and Srebrenica. All were slaves to Pharaoh.
When we respond to the Sixth Child who asks about Bucha and Mariupol and the six million refugees (internal and external), with the scripted reply, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt,” we’ll be bearing witness to the trials and the triumphs, the courage as well as their unbearable suffering, of our brothers Moses and Volodymyr. We’ll be saying, for all to hear, that their story has become our story. Ukraine’s suffering is our own.
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