Does G-d have arms?
Have you ever wondered? In the narrative of of the Haggadah, we read about a G-d that pulled the Israelite slaves from Egypt into freedom “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (בְּיָ֣ד חֲ֭זָקָה וּבִזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֑ה) (Ex 6:6), and we accept it.
Over the last few months, I have had the immense privilege of spending some time with seven, eight, and nine year old children. Within an educational context, we spend some time together each morning — each child according to their own specified need. We look at letters, and figure out how they fit together into words; we study some words of Torah, and figure out how they fit together into our stories; and we take deep breaths to figure out our emotions.
A particular eight year old child that I have been working with asked me this question, as we were talking together about the story of the exodus. As I do, I asked him if he could “say more about that,” and perhaps, what had him wondering about whether G-d had arms? I was expecting him to refer back to this much repeated phrase, but instead, his question hit poignantly to the heart of Pesach wondering:
“Well, if G-d had arms,” he said thoughtfully, “then, could he not just have scooped up Bnei Israel in a big hug and taken them out of Egypt? Did we really need to go through all the plagues, and the death, and the destruction of property?”
Just like that , this insightful eight year old hovered over the question of— “can there be freedom without suffering? and without suffering, is it really freedom” Could G-d have scooped us up to freedom in an embrace of compassion, rather than through a road of destruction? Can we have peace without war?
I brought this question to the Haggadah roundtable in my Yeshiva — yes, to a group of brilliant women learning towards Orthodox Rabbinical Ordination. Here, we all shared insights, learnings, and questions surrounding the haggadah. This question seemed to strike a particular chord — perhaps because it came from an eight year old, but also perhaps because it strums that one string on our internal guitars that is slightly out of tune. It plays a somber note, which reverberates uncomfortably through our spirit. As the sun sets tonight, and we re live the story of Pesach — we are faced with the reality of suffering. The suffering of the Israelites, and the suffering of the Egyptians. The suffering of mothers, and the suffering of laborers. The suffering of children — on both sides.
The last plague, the death of the first born, is the most visceral — I do not know a mother who can watch the scenes depicting that plague in The Prince Of Egypt without feeling an internal wince of pain. While we know, through our reading and learning, why G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart, we also know that this act created suffering for people just living their lives.
It echoes the questions of my own daughter when I speak to her about the war in Ukraine, about violence in Israel, and when we remember those who are currently suffering around the world as we light our Shabbat candles.
“But why would they hurt children? Children haven’t done anything wrong!”
Children — at the center of our universe whether they are ones we care for, teach, support, or coach — do not deserve to suffer. Children deserve a compassionate embrace that guides them through their own challenges — into freedom. Whether those challenges are learning to read, physical illness, or what we now see more and more of — anxiety and depression.
One of the biggest gifts of spending time with children is having the opportunity to witness the evolution of wisdom. As children grow, so do the many millions of connections in their brains, and as those connections grow — so do they questions they have. As we have been spending many weeks in the study of the story of the Pesach Haggadah, the children have been wondering. Pesach places the questions of children, namely four types of children, at the center of the celebration. To quote one of the truly wonderful messages sent out by my children’s school, “It is a holiday that sees children as competent and capable and as agents to experience the chag”
Today, as we burned our chametz — a ritual marking the start of observance of eating unleavened bread on Pesach — my daughter remarked that the blackening of the newspaper we used as kindling reminded her of the plague of darkness, and how that darkness just took over everything. She said, “The fire is making darkness, and when it disappears, there will only be what is left behind, and that’s us — ready to celebrate Pesach.”
This yom tov, I invite you to listen to the questions and observations of children. They might be at your seder, and they might be in your shul. They might be at the park where you stroll, or they might be on the airplane taking you to your vacation. Children, especially young children, are closer to the spiritual wisdom of G-d than we are as adults — there is still curiosity, wonder, play, and innocence. It is a gift to us to hear what they have to say — and the wisdom they impart. Listen, and they will teach you.