Of the hundreds of thousands of seforim published over the years and those that continue to make their way to the neighborhood Judaic stores in troves, there is no topic more popular than the Haggadah. Virtually every sage, both ancient and modern, has either authored a commentary on the Haggadah or their insights have been gathered by others to form a singular volume on it. While the Haggadah is certainly a priceless source of the historical and monumental formation of the Jewish people as well as serves as a text teeming with invaluable lessons in emunah, there must be more to uncover. What message does the Haggadah relate to us that makes it the essential work that causes us to passionately spend days before Pesach scrutinizing it and then remain awake into the early hours of Pesach morning discussing it?
We are taught by Chazal that the style in which the Haggadah was structured follows the concept of matchilim b’gnut u’mesaymim b’shevach, we begin with the dishonor and we finish with praise. It is this statement alone that seems to resolve many of the night’s questions. Why do we begin speaking of the idolatrous origins of our people prior to describing our glory? Why do we focus on the depravity and bitterness in the first two questions of the Ma Nishtana before transitioning to symbolisms of freedom in the remaining two questions?
Matchilim b’gnut u’mesaymim b’shevach.
There is, however, a profound depth to this response. Not only does it answer these individual questions and more, but it serves as a core, fundamental framework for life in general and several facets in particular, most notably, education. The narrative of the Haggadah is so appealing and captivating because it draws upon the quintessential human nature to willingly endure struggle, difficulty and even pain in order to achieve sublime, yet often elusive success. Allegorically, people are prepared to “hit the gym” where they have every intention to persist amid sweat, strain and immense pressure to enhance their physique and strengthen their muscle tone. As they say, no pain, no gain.
Growing pains are not only part of life; they are integral to it. Infants must teeth in order to reveal the teeth below the gum surface. Toddlers must fall in order to learn to walk. Children must crash into a shrub, garbage can or asphalt when mastering the bicycle. Our early years are replete with failures. Yet, we all produced a full set of teeth, grasped the skill of walking and conquered the bicycle. We all overcame these temporary defeats due to the fact that we simply had no choice. Resilience and the deep-rooted need for advancement and personal growth made us determined to succeed.
Failure is not limited to our physical development. If it is such an essential prerequisite for growth, then failure must be far more pervasive. Education, for instance, is full of failure. The very structure of education is predicated on the unavoidable likelihood that students will fail at one point or another, in one class or another and concerning one decision or another. Over the course of a child’s school career, he will have experienced several such failures, but, more importantly, a multitude of opportunities to grow as a result of them. Assignments may be left incomplete, assessments may fall short of expectations, teacher reports may sound less than favorable (perhaps more to parents than students) and the occasional missed shot during recess or a crucial basketball game may invoke scorn from peers and a flood of personal disappointment. Inevitably, students will be met with one form of failure or another, but it is the reaction and response that will shape their future.
Thankfully, children are not alone. When they teethed, they had a loving and compassionate parent holding that rubber ring, attempting to somehow rationalize with their infant child that biting on it would soothe them. When they were placed wobbling on the carpeted living room floor, they had a hopeful parent standing at a short, attainable distance with arms stretched out to catch them when they finally made their way without falling. When they awkwardly swerved back on forth on their seemingly insurmountable bicycle, they had a cautious, yet nervous parent sprinting behind them, allowing them to fall repeatedly until they sped away with exuberance and exhilaration. But they had to fall. They had to cry. Those fleeting moments of our discomfort and helplessness were the necessary ingredients for the final results without which we would have denied them a more promising and fulfilling future.
The goal, therefore, is not to fear failure, rather to embrace it and learn from it. Even to encourage it. Without failure there is no growth. Without failure, we would not be humbled by our mistakes, learn from the errors and perfect ourselves each time. But if we neglect to help develop, integrate and reinforce resilience in our children, we will have stripped away the ability and power for such growth. If we cannot support our children at times of failure or admit to failure ourselves, we will have not empowered them or ourselves to reach our potential. If we would have coddled them before falling, they would never have walked at the appropriate age. If we stubbornly held tight to the back of the bicycle, they would not have felt the rush of feeling the breeze in their hair as they rode through the summer air. Lifting a 5-pound weight will not make a person stronger regardless of how we may convince ourselves otherwise.
Throughout our history, we experienced setbacks. Through the early stages of our people’s infancy and in subsequent generations, we were faced with daunting challenges, ruthless kings and dictators, forced to labor mercilessly, and overcame unspeakable evil through unyielding pain and superhuman sacrifice. Through it all, our Father remained ever so close, observing, supporting and yearning the day when we accomplished the particular task at hand. He taught us over the centuries that through heartache and hope, resolve and resilience, we can and will succeed. We would and should only fear Him, not failure.
This is the thrust of the Haggadah, and this is the message of matchilim b’gnut u’mesaymim b’shevach. We MUST start with the g’nai if we are to arrive at the shevach. So as we stay up deep into the night discussing the miraculous epoch of yetziat Mitzrayim, we must reflect upon this concept of matchilim b’gnut u’mesaymim b’shevach, and realize that it is no wonder that we sit in darkness at the seder table as we usher in the dawn of day. It is no wonder that failure is a precursor to fulfillment. And as we engage in joyous and insightful dialogue with our children who are sitting inspired beside us, we can appreciate just how far they have come. Through disappointment and distress, frustration and failure, they are the culmination of years of our patience and commitment to their success. We allowed them to fail, yet assisted them to stand once again. Stronger and more resilient than before.
May our children continue to fall and fail, yet may they then find the power to rise through the resilience we nurtured within them. While we are matchilim b’gnut, we are of mesaymim b’shevach. One is the objective and the other is the means to accomplish it. We must not deprive our children such an infinitely valuable achievement. This is the essence of the Haggadah. This is the essence of education.
This is the essence of life.
By Rabbi Avi Bernstein,
Dean of Students,
RYNJ Middle School