I love when modern research reinforces the brilliance of Jewish tradition. In this past Sunday’s New York Times (“The Stories that Bind Us,” 3/17/13), best-selling author Bruce Feiler explores research that reveals an overwhelming conclusion: “The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” The researchers explained that children who have the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self.” That is to say, “They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
Monday night begins the holiday of Pesach. Families and friends around the world will come together for sedarim (plural of seder), sharing familiar songs, stories, and food. Through these often intergenerational experiences, family journeys and experiences are told or re-told. Of course, at the core of each seder lies the re-telling of the history of the Jewish people. “My father was a wandering Aramean,” we read in Deuteronomy 26:5-10, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” By reciting these verse, we fulfill our Torah-based mitzvah to teach our children about the Jewish people’s salvation through God’s awesome might and power. Moreover, through sharing our family’s history, we provide our children a strong sense of identity and confidence that empowers them to face the great challenges of life.
The article goes on to explain that the most helpful family narratives are those that are honest about ups and downs over the years. “When faced with a challenge,” Feiler writes, “happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.” This is the way of the Jewish people: throughout the generations, life gave us great challenges; with God’s help in partnership with human wisdom and innovation, we overcame those challenges to create a bright future for ourselves. And, frankly, this is the ultimate lesson of Passover as well. Oh, and by the way, Feiler also adds, “the hokier the family’s tradition … the more likely it is to be passed down.” And that’s just good advice for making a Passover seder great!
This Passover, may we immerse ourselves in the traditions of the Jewish people, full of joy and meaning, but also giving our children an inner strength to overcome life’s obstacles. As Feiler concludes: “The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.” Kein y’hi ratzon, May this be God’s will.
– Rabbi Aaron L. Starr