For as long as I've been alive, my parents have hosted the first night's Passover seder. As our family matured and expanded, and as the seder became more inclusive (coming to accommodate first and second cousins, teachers from our school, family friends and near-strangers who happened to be passing through town), we moved the proceedings from our dining room to the basement. One table became many pushed awkwardly together: the plastic folding table, the pingpong and bumper-pool tables, four card tables...all covered in matching, if wine-stained, tablecloths. At each setting was a Haggadah that my father had cobbled together the week before by Xeroxing favorite passages from other Haggadahs and, more recently, by printing online sources. Because on this night copyright doesn't apply...
I'm not an observant Jew and wouldn't be considered religious by most definitions (including my own). But this oldest of rituals, which conveys the oldest of stories, couldn't possibly feel more contemporary or important to me—especially now that I'm a father.
Religion snuck up on me as a parent. Throughout my childhood, I spent Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons promising my future children that they would never waste their Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons at Hebrew school. And yet when the time comes—my wife and I are still a few years away—it's hard to imagine doing anything terribly unlike what our parents did. Or their parents. Or their parents' parents' parents' parents...traditions of all kinds compel our parenting choices. (This is true for everything from the "cinnamon oatmeal" I cook my children for breakfast to the stories I read to them at bedtime.) But so does the desire to get it slightly more right: to put lessons learned in my own life to use, or simply to shape traditions to fit the contemporary moment. (We are raising our children vegetarian and often invent our own stories to tell them in bed.) It's a balancing act: How do you bind yourself to the old, without binding yourself?
And there's something else going on, too—something beyond tradition, and inherited values, even beyond reason. Children evoke what Abraham Joshua Heschel called "radical amazement." If you've ever stood at the edge of the ocean before a storm or watched a solar eclipse in a puddle, you know what this is—when the question being begged is not how something works, but why. And at this stage in my life, there is no more radically amazing why than the faces of my sons.
All those years ago, we were doing more in my parents' basement than just fulfilling a ritual, or telling a story, or transmitting values: We were setting aside some time from the bustle of our daily existence to engage with a question that has no answer, but whose asking reminds us of the scales and stakes of our lives: "Why are we who we are?" The question inspires amazement.
Religion—even for the unreligious—can be a powerful way, perhaps even the most powerful way, to engage with our amazement. I don't especially care whether or not my children believe in God, but I can think of nothing more important or powerful to instill in them than the experience of wonder. And for us, this happens at a pushed-together table with a wine-stained tablecloth.
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