Spring has arrived and Passover is here to celebrate new life and liberation. The holiday is more than half over as I write this post. About a month ago, I sat down with Rabbi Mike Rothbaum at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation to brainstorm about the children’s seder that was planned for this Pesach. As a creative educator, Rabbi Mike is eager to think outside the box. How could the children contribute? Many would attend seders with their families, and would not be here for the actual holiday. We decided to invite them to create a mural backdrop for the synagogue seder which would transform the classroom walls into the Sinai Desert, with the Red Sea for an entrance.
On the designated painting day, thirty kids dutifully removed their shoes and found a place to sit along the edges of long sheets of paper unrolled across the floor. Empty coffee cans held tempera paint – ocean blues and dark seaweed colors for the Red Sea; and muted sand tones and aqua for the Sinai desert and sky.
Children do not need much guidance when it comes to painting the sea. According to legend, when the waters of the Red Sea parted and the Israelites crossed on dry land, they walked between vertical walls of water from which they could pluck fish and other other morsels of the sea to feed the hungry. Children can easily imagine such wonders. A dedicated group of kids set to work immediately on all kinds of sea creatures. “No floundering around!” joked the rabbi, who never missed a chance to mix humor and learning. Children listen well when their hands are engaged, and it was a good time to talk about the broad themes of Passover. Among these are liberation from tyranny of all kinds, celebrating new life, and accepting the inevitable mingling of joy and sorrow. Each theme would be symbolized by foods at the seder, and relates to the ancient tale of Exodus as well as our lives today. Rabbi Mike establishes a warm and open atmosphere in which questions and curiosity thrive. The discussion was lively as brushes were dipped, paint was swiped, and excitement filled the room.
We talked about how to paint the Sinai desert. It is not a desert of mesas, like the Judean Desert or our American southwest. The Sinai is a jagged and wrinkled wilderness, with sharp upthrusts and flat, sandy valleys. Through this labyrinth the Israelites made their way for forty years, learning the rules of good conduct and life-affirming ethics as they went. How could we impart a sense of the texture and scale of this wild landscape that surrounded these brave (and sometimes not so brave) wanderers?
A jagged, unrehearsed line was enough to suggest the tops of the mountains. From the peaks of this line, random cracks came tumbling toward the earth. Cheap sponge brushes served well to fill large areas of color. Some children were content to sit in pairs and fill in desert sky; as always, many were drawn to paint in aqua blue.
All those hands worked quickly! Before we knew it, the desert landscape had taken shape. The result was a lively rendition of the Sinai wilderness, simple but energetic; and a wondrous Red Sea. The Sinai mural was large enough to create a large arc around the seder area, which we filled with tapestries and cushions to simulate a desert tent. As for the Red Sea – naturally, it was parted in two and pinned up on vertical partitions to line the entrance to the seder.
Several days later on the second night of Passover, over forty people filled the room. Children and their families removed their shoes, crossed the Red Sea between painted walls of water, and entered our symbolic Sinai desert to eat symbolic foods on a symbolic journey of liberation. But behind these ancient symbols is a journey that is real today, for each of us in our own way. Thanks to Rabbi Mike for giving the children at WJC an opportunity to think about their place in that journey in a fresh way.
May you have a liberating holiday and a warm and fruitful spring!
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