Towards the beginning of Parashat Bo, the Torah tells of the tense exchange between Moshe and Pharaoh in advance of the eighth plague, the plague of locusts, after Pharaoh’s advisors urged him to accede to Moshe’s demand to release Benei Yisrael. Pharaoh called Moshe and Aharon into the palace and told them he was prepared to grant their request and permit Benei Yisrael to journey into the wilderness to serve God. He wanted to know, however, whom Moshe intended to bring with him, and Moshe replied, “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters…” (10:9). Pharaoh responded angrily to this demand, telling Moshe and Aharon that only the adult males would be permitted to leave (10:11). Rashi explains that since Moshe’s demand was that the people needed to leave to serve God in the desert (5:8), Pharaoh was prepared only to allow the adult males leave, as children did not normally participate in religious rituals.
Some have suggested that this exchange forms the background to the pronounced emphasis on children in the celebration of Pesach. The obligation of sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim – to tell the story of the Exodus on the night of Pesach – revolves around children, and Chazal instituted several practices at the seder aimed exclusively at piquing the children’s interest. It has been explained that whereas Pharaoh insisted – as Rashi comments – that there was no reason to bring children out of Egypt to serve God, we place special emphasis on our children in celebrating the Exodus, as if responding to Pharaoh’s claim and making it clear that children occupy an especially prominent place in our service of God.
Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz added that this might explain an extraordinary provision relevant to the pesach sacrifice. The Rambam, in Hilkhot Korban Pesach (5:7), addresses the case of a youngster who reaches the age of mitzva obligation at some point in between the 14th of Nissan – the day when the korban pesach is offered – and the 14th of Iyyar – the day known as “Pesach Sheni.” The occasion of Pesach Sheni was established as a second opportunity granted to those who were unable to offer the pesach sacrifice at its proper time, on the 14th of Nissan. We might have assumed that this includes the youngster in the aforementioned case – who was a minor on the 14th of Nissan, and thus had no obligation to offer the pesach sacrifice, and become a halakhic adult before Pesach Sheni. Even if the youngster was included in an adult’s korban pesach on the 14th of Nissan, we might have intuitively thought that he is required to bring a sacrifice as an adult on Pesach Sheni, since he was unable to fulfill the actual obligation on the 14th of Nissan, as he was yet excluded from the mitzva. The Rambam, however, ruled that the youngster in this case does not, in fact, have to bring a sacrifice on Pesach Sheni. Although we generally assume that a minor’s mitzva observance cannot be considered an actual mitzva act through which his obligation as an adult can be discharged, in this case, the youngster is considered to have fulfilled the mitzva. Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz viewed this halakha as a striking expression of the special status given to the children in the Pesach observance, as a resounding rejection of Pharaoh’s denial of the need for children to participate in religious services.
The significance of this concept perhaps extends beyond the specific point of the importance of children’s participation in religious life. We are all, in a sense, “children.” Like children, we all have so much more to learn, so many good habits to develop and so many bad habits to break, and we all have so much more we need to grow. At every age, and no matter how much we know or do, we have so much more to achieve in terms of knowledge, conduct, growth and maturity. The “Pharaoh” in our minds might try telling us that “children” such as ourselves have no place in religious practice. After all, we might think, something as lofty as the worship of God must be restricted to the “adults,” to the elite, to those who have achieved near perfection. But Moshe teaches us in this parasha that to the contrary, “we will go with our young and with our old” – everybody is included in the responsibilities and privileges of avodat Hashem. No matter how small we are, no matter how “young” and “childish” we are, God wants us included. God wants us to serve Him even in our very imperfect condition, despite our faults and our failings. We must commit ourselves to serve God to the best of our ability under our current conditions and circumstances, flawed as they may be, and work to inch just a bit closer to greatness, one small step at a time.