In the piece below, an 11th-grade student named Claire Shoyer delivers an amazing D’var Torah in honor of CJP‘s Barry Shrage. (The occasion was an event commemorating Shrage’s years of service at CJP.) It’s a work of keen intelligence—and it demonstrates how day school helped deepen Shoyer’s Jewish learning, and her Pesach.
My name is Claire Shoyer and I am in the 11th grade at Gann Academy, Boston’s pluralistic Jewish high school. I also attended the Solomon Schechter of Greater Boston for elementary and middle school. Thank you for the honor of sharing a few words of Torah with you today, and mazel tov to Mr. Shrage, CJP and the whole community on this special occasion.
Jewish education has been very important to me since I was a young child; when I was in second grade, I actually decided to switch from public school to Jewish day school because I wanted a deeper Jewish education. Jewish education’s importance is evident in the way in which we celebrate the upcoming holiday of Pesach. We are commanded to retell and remember the story of the exodus, as well as teach it to our children. It is the custom for the youngest child at each seder to recite the four questions, which we then answer. We are told to explain the meaning of the seder to everyone, whether they are wise, wicked, simple, or don’t know enough to ask. Everyone is supposed to be an active participant in the seder. Everyone must participate in the education.
Why is education so central to the observance of Pesach? In Exodus chapters 12 and 13, G-d and Moses outline how future generations should observe the holiday. We are commanded to eat unleavened bread for seven days, to have a feast, and to remember the story of the exodus. Above all, we should keep the day as a memorial for generations to come, explaining the commandments to our children. In chapter 12 verses 26-27, Moses tells the Jewish People that in future generations, their children will ask, “what does all this [the Pesach sacrifice] mean to you– “וְהָיָה, כִּי-יֹאמְרוּ אֲלֵיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם מָה הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת לָכֶם”. He instructs them, and us, to answer: “זבַח-פֶּסַח הוּא לַיהוָה, אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל-בָּתֵּי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת-מִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל”–it is the Pesach sacrifice of G-d, that he passed over the houses of the children of Israel, smote the Egyptians and saved our houses. According to Moses, the children will ask why? Why do we do what we do?
Education is emphasized in the observance of Pesach because we need to go beyond going through the motions. We need to know and understand why we perform our rituals. Sure, we could dip matzah in maror and just think it’s a tasty snack, but that ritual becomes much more meaningful when we know we are eating the maror to remember the bitterness that our ancestors had to suffer. In this sense, the Passover seder embodies the value of Jewish learning.
Jewish education is so important to me because every tradition and ritual becomes more meaningful when I understand its origins. As a high school junior, what I love about my classes is that we don’t just learn facts and figures—we question and challenge and debate. In history, we don’t just learn what happened or to whom it happened; we explore why events might have happened and what we can learn from this about ourselves and our world; in science and math, we don’t just want to understand how the world works – we want to understand why the world works the way it does.
So too, in Jewish learning and living. Rather than just going through the motions of being Jewish, I am able to actually think about the things I do because I’ve been educated; because, for me, my Jewish learning has been as sophisticated engaging and deep as my other high school studies. Jewish education leads to a more meaningful Jewish experience. My Jewish education has strengthened my love for Judaism because I have learned and continue to learn why I do, why we do what we do.
I wish you all a Chag Sameach, a Happy Passover. And, I hope that other kids, teens and adults are able to experience meaningful and deep Jewish learning as I have!