A Seder Shouldn’t be Flat as Matzo — Try This at Home
There’s no excuse for a boring seder.
The Passover story is too dramatic, its themes too urgent, and the energy of guests too opportune for the ritual to be about simply “getting through” the haggadah to make it to the matzoh ball soup.
And yet so many Jews confess to streamlining the first stretch of the service to hasten the meal. So many tell me they wish they could engross the children. So many admit to reciting the same text the same way every year without noticing that their guests have stopped listening to the words.
So this is the rare column where I’ll morph from reporter to evangelist: A seder should be captivating and it’s not so hard to get there.
Okay, if not captivating, at least really interesting. Even memorable. Especially for the children.
And not just because it’s a warm-and-fuzzy goal to get the kids involved. It’s because the children are the entire point. Just ask the rabbis.
“Teaching the young to ask questions is an essential feature of Pesach,” writes Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his book, “Haggada.” “So much so that the Haggada – the narration – must be in response to a question asked by a child.”
Rabbis over the centuries have hammered this message home: the seder is designed to keep the children interested. Every quirky proceeding – washing hands, dipping parsley, hiding the Afikomen, leaning to the left – is meant to spark curiosity, which prompts attentiveness, which deepens connection, which insures permanence.
The Torah repeats and repeats: Tell it to the children. They’ll grow up to be the tellers. When the children tune out, we’ve failed the mitzvah.
“The old-fashioned seder, where people’s grandparents mumbled through the whole book, was in fact – even from the point of view of halachah (Jewish law) – a very bad way to do it,” says Rabbi Arthur Green, Rector of Hebrew College near Boston. “Because it wasn’t really ‘telling’ your child; it wasn’t really passing it on.”
Instead of simply calling on guests to read passages aloud, don’t we want our guests – of every age – to think hard and talk to each other?
What follows are some of the small inventions I’ve come up with in the eight years I’ve been leading my extended-family seder for as many as 35 people, from tots to tantes.
I don’t claim to have created anything revelatory. But, in my family at least, it’s working: kids stay absorbed and adults stay alert. My efforts may not be scholarly, but they’re road-tested. They’re not radical departures, but rooted in tradition. I simply try to paint the seder’s underpinnings in Technicolor, to animate the narrative and rituals in a way that makes them percolate and stick.
Most importantly, I invite all the children of reading age to be integral players in the whole evening – not just to recite the four questions and perk up during “Dayenu.”
1. If kids have to teach it, they’ll retain it
I firmly believe – and have now seen the proof – that if children have to prepare a lesson for the seder, they remember it.
A leadership role makes them feel critical to the proceedings and eager to watch what their cohort comes up with.
When the children are invited to teach the table, it signals powerfully: you own this story, too – and we trust you to convey and preserve it.
About six weeks in advance, I put the word out to all the kids: “Pick your section.” They can choose, for example, the seder plate, the four cups, the four children, the lamb’s blood, the Afikomen, Elijah, etc.
Age is no obstacle; any parent knows that a 7-year-old can explain the matzoh or the plagues just as well as a 16-year-old, albeit at a different level of sophistication. Each year our children’s lens changes, and that’s a benefit, not a barrier.
The assignment I give is simple: prepare your topic any way you like–skit, song, rap, collage, cartoon, news report, video, power point – you name it (ideally 5 minutes or under). When we come to that part of the seder, you’re in charge.
The habit I want to instill is preparation; kids quickly discover how accessible seder research is, how much richer the holiday becomes if we jumpstart our rumination before we get to the table, how rewarding it feels to guide and instruct.
“You need a constant conversation between the generations,” says Sacks.
2. Since the seder is based on questioning – “Why do we recline?; Why do we dip twice?” – consider making the Haggadah all about questions instead of readings.
My haggadah, attached here, is built entirely on questions intended to educate as well as stimulate.
All the seder requirements are there, but the rest is inquiry – for adults and kids alike. I’ve seen how being asked is more effective than being told.
So the full content is imparted—but through dialogue instead of monologue.
My haggadah is always in flux, thanks to my ongoing seder-geek reading of haggadahs or commentaries by such rabbis and scholars as Jonathan Sacks, Ron Wolfson, Joy Levitt, Yitz Greenberg, Arthur Waskow, Michael Strassfeld, Wayne Dosick, Elie Wiesel, Fran Klagsbrun, David Teutsch, Tamara Cohen, Lawrence Hoffman, Esther Broner, Edgar Bronfman, Sr., Jonathan Safran Foer, David Arnow, and others. I also draw on the sermons and essays of many rabbis (what rabbi hasn’t expounded on the Exodus?).
Rabbi Ron Wolfson in his detailed guide, “Passover,” writes: “There is a view that we are not obliged to tell the Haggadah unless a question is asked. Can there be any doubt as to the importance of questions at the Seder?”
I’ve probably amassed too many questions in my haggadah, but they are merely catalysts; skip as many as you want. Some examples:
“Why do you think Moses is barely mentioned in the Haggadah when he was the one to guide the Israelites to freedom?”
“Moses balked when God first asked him to lead; is it possible that a sign of great leadership is self-doubt?”
And the youngest guests will be asked things like, “It’s hard to eat the bitter herb without making a sour face because it tastes bad – on purpose. If you had to pick a food to stand in for maror, what would you choose?”
Guests don’t know who will be called on next, which keeps everyone on their toes. No mastery of Judaism is required; the point is not to highlight ignorance but engage the participants: every opinion adds something.
3. If You Make It A Game, Kids Forget They’re Learning
When we arrive at the maggid – the telling of the Exodus story itself, instead of simply reading it from the haggadah (which is typically a choppy, confusing narrative), we play “Speed Maggid.”
That’s when I hit the timer and start firing questions about the facts of the story, for the kids to shout out answers as quickly as they can. [See my haggadah p. 10 for the game’s litany.]
• WHO FINDS MOSES AND PULLS HIM OUT OF THE BASKET – PHAROAH’S WIFE OR DAUGHTER? (DAUGHTER)
• WHAT DOES MOSES ANSWER WHEN GOD CALLS HIS NAME FROM THE BURNING BUSH? (“HINENI” – “HERE I AM.”)
• WHAT DOES GOD RESORT TO AS THE WORST PLAGUE? (KILLING OF THE FIRST BORN)
Each seder, we try to beat last year’s time record. The kids love the challenge and the pace, but it also makes them want to learn the story well enough to be in the mix.
When it comes to Jewish knowledge, I’m pro-competition. It should be cool to know the name of the guy who braved the Red Sea first (Nachshon).
4. Moments Of Silence Can Be As Powerful As The Family Din
Four times during our seder, I ask everyone to be quiet (not an easy feat at a Jewish table):
-Once between the first hand-washing and the eating of the karpas because the two acts are considered one;
-Second, between the next hand-washing and the motzi for the same reason;
-Third to think about the metaphor of broken matzah: When have we felt broken? Think of someone who brought you out of that broken place and made you feel whole again. Have you ever mended someone else? Can you think of someone you could help tomorrow?
-And finally, I ask for a quiet reflection on when, in the last year, we have welcomed the stranger, as the haggadah mandates. You don’t have to share it with the table, but be honest with yourself: have you actually done it?
5. Shake up “Dayenu” With Scallions
The Persian tradition has a wonderful custom: during “Dayenu,” guests thrash each other (gently) with scallions to simulate the whips of the Egyptian slave masters.
I place the supple onions beside every plate (another impetus for children to ask why), and announce that everyone is free to flog their neighbors during the chorus of “Dayenu.” (Just the chorus, otherwise it’s mayhem.)
6. The Jewish Joy of Debate
Last year, while setting the seder table, I slipped under each person’s plate a point of view – or position – that he or she had to argue, against an opponent chosen by me in advance.
I would call on a pair and give them one minute to debate – 30 seconds for each side.
For instance, my father was pitted against my nephew.
Resolution for Dad to argue: “Resolved: it was wrong for the Israelites to dance after crossing the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army drowning behind them.”
For Ethan: “Resolved: it is entirely appropriate for the Israelites to dance after crossing the Red Sea, with the enemy drowning behind them.”
Not only were these mini-debates entertaining, they forced the debaters to engage the dilemmas presented by our text.
Another sample debate topic (but more fun to come up with your own):
Resolved: Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God and therefore he can’t be held wholly responsible for his obstinacy.
Resolved: Pharaoh is wholly responsible for his stubbornness because he had multiple opportunities to set the Israelites free.
You get the idea.
7. Seder means order: Do you know what comes next?
Put each of the 15 seder steps (they’re easily searchable online) on separate index cards and ask the kids to make their best guess at the correct sequence by tacking them up on a bulletin board or taping them to a wall.
They’ll likely have to work together to figure it out, but the aim is for kids to master the seder map, to visually grasp the bigger picture, and ultimately to become confident enough to run a seder themselves.
8. Match the Symbol to the Meaning
On one side of a bulletin board or white board, put the following symbols: Matzo, egg, parsley, lamb shank, haroset, maror, 10 drops of wine, etc.
On the other side, have a scramble of index cards, each with a meaning that the kids have to match to the correct symbol: (eg. “wholeness,” “bitterness of slavery,” “rebirth,” “mortar used by slaves,” “tears shed for the Egyptian deaths,” “a rushed escape,” “Temple sacrifice.”)
Again, it’s just another diversion to capture attention and reinforce retention.
9. Next Year in Jerusalem
Passover reminds us that Elijah is the harbinger of the Messiah, who will only come when we’ve done our part to heal the world, when we’ve made sure there is no more slavery – global or personal.
“Next Year in Jerusalem” means, in addition to the literal aspiration, ‘Next year healed.’
Inspired by a suggestion on Lab/Shul’s Passover website last year, I handed out index cards and asked everyone to answer privately on one side of the card:
This is the way in which I feel free: ___|___|___|___|___|___|___|__
And on the opposite side: This is the way I am not free:___|___|___|___|___|___|___|_
I asked them to self-address the envelopes and insert their private answers. This year I will be mailing them back to each person a few days before Pesach so they can see what their responses were last year and think about whether they would answer similarly today.
“Whatever it is that constricts you or enslaves you,” says Rabbi Arthur Green, “you have to ask, ‘What is holding me back, what is my inner slavery? What keeps me from being in touch with the deepest parts of myself, with the presence of God in myself, and how do I liberate myself from it?’”
One’s personal “narrow place” – the translation for Mitzrayim (Egypt) – may not compare to the “narrow places” of global suffering. But at the seder table, if we start with the pain close to home, we can perhaps begin to fathom the pain of populations far away.
I confess I’m seldom galvanized by attempts to imbue the seder with contemporary struggles. It’s not that I don’t feel compassion for the plight of sex slaves in Thailand, orphans in Rwanda, or children in Gaza. But I think there’s something awkwardly self-conscious and heavy-handed about the way these modern plagues are often brought to the seder table.
I do ask my seder guests – as I know many of you have – to think about today’s Pharaohs, today’s blights. To speak their names. But I have yet to find the exercise that connects the headlines to the holiday in a way that feels organically powerful, not artificially political.
“I’m much more interested in spiritual liberation than in political issues,” says Green. “For me it’s about inner freedom, the Mitzrayim of the mind, and the Egypt of the soul….You have to talk about the places where we are enslaved; that’s the real challenge. To make it about the political stuff is too easy. It has to be about us.”
That said, he does believe that our collective torment over Israel should be brought to the table this year: “We have to ask, ‘Are we the oppressed or the oppressors? And we have to swallow hard. It’s not an easy one for us.”
One question I added to my haggadah is the controversial section (added in the Middle Ages) which many Jews have excised, known as “Pour Out Your Wrath” (Shfoch Chamatcha).
It exhorts God to take revenge upon the nations that have mistreated the Jewish people: “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You…may Your blazing anger overtake them.” It always provokes an important conversation about whether revenge has a place in the Passover ethic of compassion.
Rabbi Green chooses to include it in his seder, “though some of my guests are scandalized when I do,” he admits. “It’s a piece of Jewish history; I think we have room to be angry at what was done to us.”
But he stresses that we have to turn the same mirror on ourselves. “It’s not just, ‘Pour out your wrath upon the gentiles’ – it doesn’t say that. It says, ‘Pour out your wrath upon those nations who have not known you.’ Sometimes we Americans or we Jews or we Israelis act as if we don’t know the will of God. Then we too deserve that wrath.”
Maybe parsing revenge is too complex for a 7-year-old, (though, let’s be honest, payback is a pretty familiar concept in any playground), but even a 12-year-old can discuss whether our Jewish value system should include vengeance. These questions are not too complicated for a family dialogue; they invigorate it.
I hope you will glance through my haggadah and send me innovations of your own: [email protected]
The haggadah is not breakable like our set of Passover china; it’s a breathing document, and it’s talking to us every year. We should talk back and encourage everyone at our seder tables to chime in.
Especially the children.