Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Sixth Child

Passover has always been a family oriented holiday. It is not unlike the American celebration of Thanksgiving when family members will travel cross country just to make it to the dinner table to break bread with their loved ones. Of course, at Passover we don't break bread. We break matzah (unleavened bread) instead. Before we partake of any foodstuff, we read from a special Passover prayerbook called a Haggadah. Haggadot (plural) are as varied as the permutations of Jewish observance. Some are plain Jane texts of Hebrew and English. Some have beautiful illustrations with detailed commentary, while others are far more inventive with games for the kids and song parodies. It is all in the spirit of the holiday which celebrates the redemption of the Hebrew slaves from an oppressed to a self-determining people who owe their existence to the direct intervention of God. Early in the Haggadah reading we are told of the Four Sons or Four Children who could attend a Passover meal called a seder. The Haggadah gives instruction on how to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt to the Wise, the Wicked (or Contrary), the Simple, and the One Who Knows Not to Ask. Before he died, the Labavitcher Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) instituted the concept of the Fifth Child, whom he described as the One Who Could Not Attend. Furthermore, some have gone to suggest that the Fifth Son might be representative of the children who perished during the Holocaust. As a member of a family, one can measure the changes in family structure and size by attending seders through the years. My maternal grandmother put on huge Passover productions. She not only had two sets of dishes for meat and milk for Passover alone, but went so far as to have a special stove and a special dishwasher that were only used at Passover time. I recall my Great Aunt Tante Pearlman, who attended my materal grandmother's huge affairs with her son. Her son David was a relatively young man who passed away shortly before his mother expired. Cousins would see each other for an evening and then not see each other for another year. The link was always through the Passover seder. After my grandmother passed away, my mother and my uncle and his wife continued the practice of hosting seders alternating with each other as to who would play host. Although these were much smaller affairs, they were similarly rewarding in connecting to family members. I watched my cousins grow up, the youngest of whom just became a mother herself for the first time a few months ago. I saw how the hardships of divorce and death affected family members and I offered my help whenever it was appropriate. Lately, I have started thinking about all of those family members I no longer see, those proper and genteel Southern ladies who would grace my grandmother's seder or those kindly gentlemen who sat at the table observing the ordinances for the holiday. They are at the seder, but only in memory. I would suggest that we might want to consider a new Passover tradition of recalling the Sixth Child: the one who grew up, experienced the Passover holiday through the years, but is no longer physically or mentally capable of being there or has gone on to meet his or her Maker. Passover is always open to new traditions. Recent changes to the traditional observance include the concept of a Miriam's Cup filled with water that is placed on the table as well as an orange that is included, both to emphasize and glorify the feminist contribution to our faith. When I think about all those faces I no longer see at a family seder, I wax sadly about it. Would it not be an appropriate way to acknowledge those whose company we can no longer enjoy than to say a word or two about them during the night's reading? I would suggest that we should prepare a few words to consider the Sixth Child (or Sixth Son). I know I miss seeing so many of my loved ones at the Passover seder. And it is true that eventually I, too, will be a Sixth Child one day.

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