The essence of the Seder experience is to create a family educational experience. At each part of the Seder, from start to finish, the goal is to transmit our foundational Jewish story to the next generation. Below is a supplement that follows the order of the Seder highlighting the educational aspects of each element. It includes questions at the end of each section to apply the concept to your family around the table.
We break the middle matza and lift up the smaller half saying, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate…”
Like an animated film, this opening part of the Seder is simultaneously sending one message to the adults and one to the children. While the adults are getting prepared to delve into the story of oppression, this act signals to the children that the game of seeking the afikomen is about to begin. The larger half of the broken matza represents redemption, our hopes and dreams for a better world. Unlike the smaller half, the bread of affliction that is being showcased, the larger half is wrapped up and hidden away to capture the imagination of the child who is poised to seek it out. What an appropriate way to set the stage for the Seder: while the adults are discussing the problems of the Jewish people and the world, the children are eagerly engaged in seeking out the solution. Two different mindsets are formed that will influence the way each one experiences the Seder. Hopefully by the end, the two generations will come together along with the pieces of the broken matza.
How do we empower our children in the face of the challenging realities of life? What tools does Judaism and the Seder offer us in doing so?
2. The Four Questions:
According to the Mishna, “And here the child asks [questions to] the parent. And if the child has no understanding [in order to ask questions], the parent teaches the child [to ask the four questions]… And according to the child's understanding, the parent instructs him or her.” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:4)
Questioning leads to discovery and research. This is the heart of Judaism. The first command in the Shema after loving God is to teach your child. We do this by teaching our children to ask questions. In the above source, the rabbis wisely teach that the parent instructs the child according to the child’s understanding. What interests our child? What is our child ready to explore? What are the best ways for our child to learn? Perhaps this is why the tradition arose to have the youngest child ask the questions. We need to engage all of our children, all ages, abilities, and learning styles.
The rabbis suggest beginning by pointing out to the child how this night is different from all other nights. These basic questions can lead to deeper questions:
Why do we only eat matzah tonight? According to the Torah, one reason why we eat Matza is to remember the hurried manner in which the Israelites left Egypt. They didn’t even have enough time for the bread to rise. Typical of Judaism, we bring the stories of Torah to life through our actions, mitzvot. We translate moral messages into actions. It is our responsibility to explore the meaning of the actions that the Torah mandates so we can infuse them with the values they were meant to carry. What values does another mitzvah, mandated Torah behavior, communicate?
Why do we specifically eat bitter herbs tonight? This is recognizing the oppression that exists in our lives. How would you explain this to your children? Why is it important that we taste the bitterness?
Why do we dip foods twice tonight? This is a custom from Roman feasts, which the Seder meal is loosely based on. Engaging in such a feast, including dipping foods into delicacies, is the custom of free people. What meaning does mimicking the actions of free people give the Seder?
Why do we recline? Again, this was part of the Roman custom, but we added another meaning: We are acting out the story of going out of slavery. In what ways are we free today as Jews?
And the question that binds all of these questions together: why do you engage in these rituals?
What other questions are important for you to instruct your child to ask regarding Pesah and Judaism.
3. Four Children
“And you shall tell your child on that day…” (Exodus 13:8, 14)
The Hebrew for the word “tell” is the same word for Hagada. The central mitzva of Pesah of telling the story comes directly from the Torah. The Torah is so concerned about transmitting the memory and lessons of this experience of the Exodus that this command to tell the story comes while the people are in the process of leaving.
The answer to each child is in the first person. In fact, later in the hagadah it explicitly states, “Each person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she went out of Egypt.” We need to make this our story. How do you relate to this story? What has been your process of learning this story? Did you grow up with a family Seder? Or, did you come to Judaism as an adult? How does your story intersect with the Pesah story? Tell the story in first person, “When I or we came out of Egypt…”
What about your experience of Pesah do you want to tell the next generation so it continues? Why does your experience of Pesah and Judaism matter to the next generation?
4. The symbols on the Seder Plate:
These symbols come from the Torah’s account of the first Passover meal that took place on the eve of redemption in Egypt (Exodus 12:3-4):
“Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted…”
Our family Seder is simulating the experience that each family had in Egypt according to the Torah. The Torah instructs each family to experience this event as a family. By eating the Pesah sacrifice together the family was protecting its household from the tenth plague by putting blood of the sacrifice on the doorpost. The accompanying foods have also become symbolic of leaving slavery – bitter herbs and matza.
What family customs of yours communicate the value of togetherness? What actions does your family do that connects you to the Jewish people? How can you connect these family traditions to the explanation of the traditional Pesah symbols?
5. The Ten Plagues:
The slaying of the first-born rips apart every Egyptian household to save every Israelite one. The Pharoah’s dynasty was diminished by killing the first-born son as the Children of Israel emerge as God’s people. Destroying one family while establishing another. How do we approach destruction that was brought about for the sake of our redemption?
There is a midrash, a rabbinic teaching, when the Israelites crossed the sea and they witnessed the Egyptians drowning in it, they broke into song praising God. The angels join in this song with the Israelites. At this point, God rebukes the angels, “Will you praise me while my children are dying?” In this midrash, God doesn’t rebuke us for rejoicing in our freedom.
However, when we recount the plagues we take out some of our wine from our cups to symbolically diminish our joy. We must always maintain our humanity while we ensure our survival. These teachings do not allow us to exult in the value of revenge or moral superiority; rather they guide us to focus on our humanity and compassion. This call for civility is especially challenging to maintain in our culture of uncivil discourse and the polarization in our politics when it comes to the state of Israel. How do we as Jews respond in a Jewish way?
How do we teach our children to stand up for ourselves in the face of aggression while maintaining our values and not becoming aggressive ourselves?
This is a time for relaxing and reflecting upon what you have gone through to reach this moment, bonding as a family. This is a good time to assess if you are enjoying being with your family while trying to transmit the story.
“Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”
In the quote above, Elijah the prophet uses one criterion to determine if we are forces of redemption or destruction, and that is our relationship with our children. What happens when we are not connecting as a family? What happens when the Jewish rituals are obstacles to bonding rather than tools? This is an opportunity to step back and ask if our lifestyle and values are aligned to strengthen our core, our family. If not, what needs to change? We need to apply this same question to Judaism. How can Jewish traditions specifically strengthen our family? Remember, this is the very purpose of the Seder and of Judaism. We can’t effectively transmit the story to the next generation if we don’t have this basic piece of relating in place.
I know it’s getting late, but ask if everyone is able and willing to come back to the table to finish the Seder. If so, Rabbi Harold Shulweis introduces the beautiful ritual at this point to pass Elijah’s cup around the table and have everyone pour a bit of wine or grape juice into it, representing that we all have what to contribute to our hopes for our family, for our people, for our future. Debbie Friedman’s beautiful Eliyahu Hanavi melody that is commonly sung after Havdallah lends itself to bonding too.
Playfulness and song are Jewish values in themselves. The songs we are singing are fun and an opportunity to be silly. However, the themes of the songs are all serious ones. How effectively can we have fun with the children around the table while retaining the high level of consciousness of what we accomplished through the Seder. These songs lend themselves to functioning on both of these levels.
Do you carve out time to play as a family? How does this value lead to building other values that strengthen your family?