I am starting to teach my young children about Passover and I don’t know how to explain the plague “death of the firstborn.” Death is a topic which we’ve just started to address, and it’s hard enough to discuss it in a general way, let alone in the way that the Passover story seems to demand. I know that you have young kids; what’s your advice?
I was listening to the Frozen soundtrack with my four-year-old, daughter, Autumn, and her preschool-friend the other week. When we got to an instrumental part in one of her favorite tracks, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” her buddy said, “Oh, this is the sad part when the parents die.” Autumn looked at me, wide-eyed, for confirmation. She had been under the impression that the parents had gone on a boat trip, but I was happy that she hadn’t asked why they never returned for the duration of the movie.
“Yes,” I said, looking at both kids. “That is a sad part.” Autumn paused then nodded and added, “I know.” She would let her school chum think she’d known all along.
Later that week, while playing with her Anna and Elsa magic-clip-dolls - little action figures with removable clip-on dresses - she asked me if I could get her clip-dolls of the parents who went on the boat trip. She raised her eyebrows at me, the way she does when she’s testing me for the truth. I didn’t tell her that they don’t sell the dead-parent-clip-dolls, but when I told her I don’t think I’ve seen those, she understood.
We’ve also been learning about Passover in my home. Passover is one of my favorite holidays. I bought a blow-up Matzo beach ball for 18 month old, seder-plate-placemats and Passover story finger puppets. I didn’t realize, until I got home, that there was a representation of death-of-the-first-born - a wee puppet that looked like a sleeping child. I hid them in a drawer. I will remove that one before I let the kids play with them; No matter how awful Pharaoh was, I can’t get with death-of-the-first-born puppets.
And so we arrive at the dilemma of the Passover story - and of many stories from our tradition - when we wrestle with how to teach the triumph and survival of the Jewish people, without celebrating the death and destruction of their adversaries. I try to tell Autumn as honestly as I can that we don’t rejoice in others suffering, no matter how mean those people were.
Everyday I pray for the grace to be able to explain the world to my kids in a way that that they can understand while still being truthful. Sometimes, I’ll do so in a way I feel proud of, like when she asked what a villain looks like and I explained that they look like anyone else and that’s the thing about people who aren’t nice, they don’t look any different from people who are nice. Other times, I struggle; I am tongue-tied. I do my best to talk to her in a way that is sincere, and I often find she knows more than I suspected, and she’ll stop me to change the subject when she’s heard enough.
I don’t address “death-of-the-first-born” head-on to my four-year-old. I imagine I’ll have to soon. For now, when we get to the last plague, I simply say “firstborn” and leave it vague. When she asks I will tell her that these awful things led to the freedom of the Jewish people, but that we don’t celebrate the suffering of others. When she asked me about being slaves, I told her that Jews were not the only people who were slaves. I try to instill in her a sense of the world and of the struggles of all people.
I love Passover because it allows us to contemplate the possibility of miracles. This is what I focus on when I teach my children. There is much that I don’t understand, that I am unsure of too, Unsure. I wrestle with this story. But I believe in the possibility of miracles, and of a God with an outstretched arm.
I hope my kids will too.