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Seder Strategy: How to Bring Your Seder to Life

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

As a child, I prepared for Passover by plagiarizing clever Haggadah interpretations and participating in the annual effort at school to put together a handbook of all the interpretations pilfered by myself and all of my classmates so that we could parrot these gems at the Seder. My father, disgusted with our uncreativity, insisted that my brothers and I at least repeat them by heart rather than reading them from the handbook. We were limited, too, in the frequency of our contributions: Disappointed, we were each forced to choose only three or four places in the Haggadah where we would deliver ourselves of these sermonic contributions.

Let me make it clear: these limitations were not imposed because the Seder was taking too long. My father would happily have sat up half the night engaging in serious exchange with us about the experience of slavery in Egypt, the redemption, its aftermath, and the implications for us today. The problem was that if approached in a certain way, the Seder would cease to be what it describes itself to be: “In every generation, one must see himself as if he himself had left Egypt.” Instead of a re-enactment of a world-defining personal experience, rather than a night spent internalizing memory, mentality, and national identity, it would become an autopilot-guided formal ceremony performed with the limbs but missing any real relationship with the mind and, ultimately, the heart. Even the children’s mini-sermons, mechanically providing answers to questions no one has asked, can feel canned, leaving people around the table secretly (or not so secretly) wishing things would just move along.

I’d bet that unfortunately, the reality of the Seder in many homes is similar. Some of you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been there, year after year, for the same production of “The Seder: The Autopilot Edition.” Instead of acting as storytellers, recounting the thrilling story which happened to us and communicating to the next generation its excitement and personal relevance, we “recite” the Haggadah, going around the table, each person reading a paragraph. But has anyone out there ever experienced excitement “reciting” anything?

Many of us enjoy the Seder’s other aspects – perhaps the presence of relatives we don’t see often, or familiar family tunes for the Seder’s many songs; charoset made the way we remember it as children, or the traditional hunt for the afikoman and the ransom negotiations which follow its finding. But while all that is pleasant, that’s not the Seder – it’s just the scenery. What is the Seder supposed to be, and why doesn’t it work for so many of us? How can we handle it better?

The single most important element of making a Seder “work” is coming to the realization that the Haggadah is not there to do it for us. It is our responsibility.

If we look to the Haggadah for inspiration, we’re looking in the right place. But if we look to the Haggadah to make the Exodus happen for us (and our children; we’ll get to them in a bit) – “In every generation, one must see oneself...” – then we’re dreaming. Reading the Haggadah with this expectation is like reading a playwright’s notes for a drama he has in mind – and expecting that an award-winning musical will unfold magically before us as we sit passively in our easy chair.

The Haggadah is just that: A set of notes and strategies for us to develop, using our imagination, creativity, and knowledge. It is not a complete drama, with script, staging, scenery, and songs included. The songs at the end of the Seder are just words until we sing them; the text of the Haggadah is just text unless we make it come to life.

Before we explore how the text of the Haggadah is designed as a resource for us, I want to offer my personal recommendation for which Haggadah you should use. There are hundreds of different Haggadot out there, and  more come out every year. Ostensibly, these Haggadot are there to enhance our Seder. But for most of us, this is simply a mistake. Armed with these interpretation-stuffed Haggadot, we cruise through the Seder in “being-entertained-by-someone-else” mode. We follow along with everyone else as the Seder goes on, and when things get slow, we glance at the commentary for “depth.”

But going through the Seder this way reinforces the impression that the job of making the Seder happen is not ours, it is the Haggadah’s. This being the case, the Seder can get only as exciting as the highlights of the commentary we happen to be reading (and which we may choose to read to everyone else, to their chagrin). For the most part, we are safely protected from the responsibility of making personal meaning of the Seder and arriving at our own personal conclusions. Almost certainly, we are deafened to the murmurings of our imagination and sense of creativity.

In view of these observations, I personally recommend the “Maxwell House Haggadah,” familiar to many of us as the paper-covered, flimsy, no-frills model of Haggadah. Any similar Haggadah will do; the point is that there is no commentary at all. The best Haggadah, I believe, is one that will not distract us from making the Seder come alive – unlike most Haggadot, which swamp us with interpretations. The intense focus on the text of the Haggadah and the minutiae of its nuances and formulations can only reinforce our sense of the absolute centrality of the recitation of the Haggadah, rather than the centrality of the story and our responsibility to communicate it at our Seder.

I have said that it is our responsibility to make the Seder happen. But what does this mean? What is the goal of the Seder?

Let us take a parallel from another area of Jewish practice. Jews study Torah not only in order to absorb its lessons and follow its teachings, but also simply because study itself is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. In his 12th-century legal code, Maimonides formulates this command in a striking way: rather than studying Torah, Maimonides says, the mitzvah is to teach Torah. Even one who is studying alone, Maimonides says, should be described as teaching himself rather than simply “studying.”

Our job at the Passover Seder is right up the same alley: Just as the command to study Torah is a command to teach ourselves and others, the command to tell the story of the Exodus is a duty to teach the story to ourselves and others. The Talmud (Pesahim 116a) reports:

The rabbis taught: “If one’s son is wise, his son asks him [the questions]. If [his son] is not wise, his wife asks him. If [his wife does not ask], he asks himself.”

The idea that our job at the Seder is to teach is not an idea invented by the Talmud. In fact, the Haggadah clearly shows us the roots of this didactic posture in the Torah itself. The Torah anticipates that some day, our children will turn to us and ask what all of these Passover rituals are about. The Torah prepares us with the basic answers. Naturally, different types of children should receive different types of answers. These answers, and the type of child to whom each answer is to be given, are spelled out in the Haggadah in the section we all know well: the section of the “four sons,” the wise, the wicked, the simple, the silent. These children and their questions come from the Torah itself, with significant interpretation and elaboration by the Talmud and Midrash (cf. Exodus 12:26, 13:8, and Deuteronomy 6:20.

The Torah, then, anticipates our children’s questions and guides our responses to them. This makes us teachers. But what the Passover Seder adds is that not only are questions something we have to be prepared to answer, they are in fact something we must work hard to provoke from children (or from ourselves, if we are doing this alone):

Talmud, Pesahim 116a: (Mishnah): “They pour the second cup [of the four cups of wine], and then the child should ask his father.”

Rashi (11th-century commentator on the Talmud) explains that the child is supposed to be made curious by the fact that dad is having an unusual second cup poured for him, and the child consequently questions the practice. The Mishnah continues:

“If the child is not aware/mature, his father teaches him: ‘Ma nishtanah....”

It should be clear then, that what most of us do at the Seder may be wrong! The Mishnah instructs us to arouse curiosity by doing something strange – pouring what appears to be another kiddush cup even though we have already made kiddush – and thereby creating an opportunity to draw the child into the meaning of the night and its practices. No one ever needs an answer unless he has a question! The “Ma Nishtanah,” which supplies a questionless youngster with questions, is only a last resort – if the child is not aware of the strangeness of the second kiddush cup or for some other reason fails to ask, we are supposed to turn to the child and point out how strange the night is. Instead, since we are laboring under the false assumption that the Haggadah is the “text to be recited” at the Seder, the be-all and end-all of the Seder experience, we dutifully instruct our children to recite these questions, which are not their own and do not really trouble them!

In truth, the “Ma Nishtanah” may not even be a set of questions, but instead a set of exclamations – it is not, “How is this night different than all other nights?”, followed by a list of some of the differences; it is a statement of wonder: “How different this night is from all other nights! What a strange night this is! We eat only matzah, we eat bitter vegetables (on purpose!), we dip things, and we eating leaning over! How strange!” This exclamation is supposed to wake up any kid who isn’t already curious about the weird things we are doing. It is supposed to make him wonder, “What does this all mean?”, a question which provides us with the opportunity to thrill him or her with the story of our salvation from Egyptian slavery.

Instead, having put these so-called “questions” into the mouth of a child with no questions of his or her own, we dutifully “recite” the answer of the Haggadah to the questions.

Which brings me to my next point: Who are we kidding? We all know what the Seder is all about, and as kids we knew too. Our own kids, if we have kids, also know what the Seder is all about. Most of our kids know much better than we do what all the symbols mean, why we’re eating matzah and not hametz (leaven), dipping things into other things, breaking the matzah in half, etc. The reason they know all this is because their teachers teach them all these things at school! Now, that being the case, can we really expect them to be curious about these supposedly unfamiliar behaviors in which we are engaging?

Obviously not. The only option, then, is to take matters into our own hands and arouse their curiosity in other ways. It is incumbent on us to do things which are completely out of the ordinary, preferably fun, perhaps involving eating something, and most important of all, we should absolutely not tell the children about it before the Seder! The goal is to evoke a “Why are you doing that?!”

If you are particularly daring and adventurous, you may find this example inviting: dress up in costume! Designate some people to dress as Egyptians, some as Israelite slaves, act out the scenes! Dress up as a frog, a locust, a hailstorm or the Angel of Death!

On a final note, I want to offer one other piece of advice: instead of preparing insights or sermonettes, have everyone prepare only questions. No one should do any research about possible answers. This is a risk, I acknowledge; we don’t have “the answers” right there on some crib sheet, and we may not have answers to some of our questions when we finally finish the Seder. But several years of beautiful, electrifying Sedarim have shown me that the risk is well rewarded. If we trust our creativity and challenge ourselves and our families, we will be pleasantly surprised at our ability to collaborate and come up with answers we don’t already have going into the Seder. The opportunity and challenge to spontaneously synthesize answers to questions makes us able to think creatively, even if we are not particularly knowledgeable. In addition, asking questions accomplishes the basic goal of the Seder: provoking the others at the Seder to become involved in telling the story and making it meaningful.






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