For the past three years I've done four Passover Seders a season. If you lived in Israel, you'd do one. If you weren't a rabbi or an educator, you might find yourself sitting through two of them. But when you
work with a Religious School and do a Model Seder for kids, and when you actively partner with local houses of worship and do an Interfaith Seder; you do four of them in a year. But who's complaining? One of the fun traditions that we have for most of our Seders comes during the discussion about the Four Children. I have four different hats, each representing the Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Not-Sure-How-To-Ask-Questions Children. People get up and wear the hats/masks, and we all have a good laugh, even as we discuss the attributes of each character.
One of the children that we rarely spend much time discussing is the Simple Child, referred to in Hebrew as Tam. The Haggadah tells us that the Simple Child asks only, "What is this?" and that we should respond with simple, easy answers, to begin to explain to the child what Passover is all about. It's a funny word though, 'Tam.' I never really thought about it much, but as I was reading through this week's parasha, I happened to notice something intriguing. Our Torah
portion is all about the Temple service, focusing specifically on the work and clothing of the priests who served in the Temple. One particularly enigmatic detail comes in chapter 8, verse 8, where we are told that, "[Moses] put the breastpiece on him [Aaron], and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thumim." So what are the Urim and Thumim? Short answer: No one really knows. They seem to be some sort of stones of divination, used by the High Priest to discern the Will of God. Many scholars have written about them, and many authors of fiction have included them as objects of mystery and wonder. But basically, we have no clue what they were.
What struck me, however, was the word 'Thumim,' which comes from the exact same root as the word for our Simple Child, 'Tam.' Yet most often when we translate the meaning of 'Urim and Thumim,' we don't talk about simplicity. We say that 'Urim' comes from 'Or,' meaning 'light,' and 'Thumim' comes from 'just' or 'right.' The Septuagint translates the names as 'brightness and perfection.' So how does that work? How can these two words - which come from the same root - have such vastly different meanings, 'Simple' and also 'Perfection'?
It made me stop and think. What if perfection isn't about elaborate, complex, cerebral, intricate concepts? What if perfection can be found in simplicity? Certainly as we begin to clean our homes and our lives, preparing for this important festival, it would help to know that the goal of our cleaning isn't to achieve perfection through spotless, meticulous, flawless scrubbing. And it would also help to know (especially if you're doing this four times...) that our Seder is about getting into the right mindset; eating good food, spending time with family, having engaging and stimulating discussions, and connecting to the essential truths of our heritage and our culture. It isn't about reading the Haggadah cover-to-cover, or spending nine hours at the Seder table, or even about stuffing yourself with every holiday food imaginable. Remember the Simple Child...
Perfection is a tricky concept. We often strive to obtain it, but almost inevitably we fall short and disappoint ourselves. At the Seder table, we overlook this third child, because s/he seems almost TOO simplistic. We praise the Wise Child, we chastise the Wicked one, and
we coddle the fourth child who's STILL struggling to get out that first question. What if we are in the middle? What if the Simple Child is us? And just as we ignore this child during the Seder, we often miss seeing our own value, our internal worth. Understanding and appreciating ourselves is almost as hard to figure out as the Urim and Thumim! So this year, let's refocus back on simplicity. Don't overthink it, don't overanalyze it. Just start with a simple question: What is this? And let us strive to realize that perfection lies not in a fancy answer, but in accepting the beauty and the depth of a simple, wonderful question.
Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Bonnie Breit from the Ohev Shalom Interfaith Seder 2012 with Christ Episcopal Church in Media and Trinity Episcopal Church in Swarthmore.