Recently, as I often do on my drive to work, I was listening to a podcast - one of many incredible episodes by my former colleague Rabbi David Bashevkin on his 18 Forty Podcast. In several discussions, he was exploring the dynamics of families who are confronted by generational change and crisis. A theme emerged that resonated with me. On more than one occasion his guests - male, female, secular, traditional, and orthodox, described the decision of standing on principle vs. preserving a relationship with their child. In each case, citing different influences, they came to the same conclusion. They chose to preserve the family, to continue to love despite sometimes grave disagreement.
What a powerful thing family is.
When the Jewish people were instructed to prepare a passover sacrifice as they were sheltered from the final plague in the story of the Exodus we will read at the seder, they gathered their families together. Ideally, no one was left out. But even early in our tradition, commentaries on the talmud and midrash indicate that only a fraction of the Jewish people actually left Egypt, and the rest were lost to history.
Within the last 75 years or so, that conclusion has been challenged - not in terms of the validity of the tradition but rather on the inevitability of loss or disconnection. In 1957, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Rebbe of Lubavitch, wrote a remarkable letter to his followers. In the shadow of the Holocaust and amid the realities of modern American life, he wrote about the Passover Haggadah, and reminded the community that though the Haggadah talks of the Four Sons, we need to recognize that there is a Fifth child, the one who is not there celebrating with us at the Seder. He categorized them as those without a family or community connection to share the seder, those without interest in sharing the seder, and those who did not have any awareness of Passover or the seder. He charged all those who host a seder to include the Fifth child and share the grandeur of our tradition with them.
In the years since, the concept of the Fifth child has been discussed and expanded throughout the Jewish world. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO emerita of the Rabbinical Assembly, described the need to include the refugee child. When I read of her inclusion, I thought of the traumatized Jewish refugee children I met a year ago who had just escaped Mariupol in Ukraine, their city destroyed, their lives endangered and their future put in question. This made her understanding very meaningful to me.
I had the privilege of getting to know Rabbi Eytan Kenter of Kehillat Beth Israel during my years living in Ottawa. Rabbi Kenter led a new congregation made up of two merged conservative shuls, while also housing an orthodox school, and working closely with his reform colleagues. His take, in an essay three years ago, was that the fifth child, who was not at the seder, represented the memory of the children who perished in the Holocaust, never more to experience the wonder of the story of our liberation.
I read an incredible essay by the late Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, whose writings on the Haggadah have been an inspiration to me for years. In it, he talked about ‘the missing fifth’ relating to not only the four sons, but also to the fifth cup, the fifth expression of redemption, and the fifth verse, and how each of these quartets are actually quintets of meaning and tradition. The element that forms the fifth, in all of these, is the idea of redemption - not only from Egypt, but also in our lives and in our collective future.
These many influences have made it clear to me that we have to seek out the Fifth child and bring them into the heart of our family. Our communal and collective identity and our future depend on it.
- Our fifth who we must welcome, even if we don’t relate to their identity or lifestyle, be it regarding gender, sexuality, increased or decreased religious observance, or choice of partner.
- Our fifth who does not have the means to make a seder, or, for that matter, who does not have the means to support themselves and their family the rest of the year.
- Our fifth who does not see eye to eye with us on ideology or politics, or even on how to build our community. Solutions come from overcoming disagreement through dialogue, not from perpetuating differences by staying in our silos.
- Our fifth who looks around at an increasingly hostile world and asks if it is safe or smart to associate with and identify as part of the Jewish community.
- Our fifth for whom the concept of family, community, liberty and peoplehood is an impractical abstract and for whom not only is the seder unknown territory, but so is the idea of collective action, celebration, or identity.
The common theme of all of these interpretations - those from rabbinical sources, and those I’ve suggested, inspired by them - is that we are all connected, and responsible for each other. We can’t turn away. We are a family. Through disagreement, divergence, division and diversity, we remain intimately connected. Let us embrace this connection and all of the wonderful responsibilities that come with it. Let’s find ways to support the individuals and organizations who are invested in meeting those responsibilities. And let’s finally bring that Fifth child to the seder, into our community, into our homes, and into our hearts, bringing the redemption we describe at the end of the Seder. Chag Sameach.