Jews with Views – Pesach Edition 5782
What are your top tips for engaging people of all ages at the Seder?
BY RABBI JUDAH MISCHEL
All around us there’s a proliferation of amazing Torah content: another insightful haggadah, a new sefer, countless hours of shiurim online. As wonderful as all the information, vortlach and commentaries are, the goal of Seder night is not to present as many explanations and insights as possible. In fact, this could distract us from the visceral experience of redemption that Chazal insist on: “seeing ourselves” as redeemed.
Pesach enables us to draw close to Hashem in the most joyful and personal of ways. When we approach Pesach with simple faith, our experience will be natural and personal, and we will feel less pressure to give over a list of new ideas, explanations – and answers.
Actually, the Seder invites us to immerse in open-ended questions, triggers for conversation, inner exploration and self-revelation. The haggadah might seem fixed and scripted; even the questioning can feel predetermined, such as when it says “And here, the child asks…” Nevertheless, the flow of the Seder is meant to be dynamic and alive; it’s our time to experience Yiddishkeit in its immediacy by celebrating the main question: “What is this avodah (service) to me?”
Encourage conversation and personal questions. Listen to others. Don’t be afraid to allow meaningful discussion to float ‘off-script’, beyond the pages of the holy text. Bechol dor va-dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah miMitzrayim – “In every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as going out of Mitzrayim.”
This Pesach, let’s strive for contact over content.
Rabbi Judah Mischel is Executive Director of Camp HASC, Mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuvah.
BY YAEL LEIBOWITZ
Questions aren’t as exciting as they once were. Once upon a time, if you asked a good question, it would engage the people around you, engender a sense of curiosity. It would get people thinking, and talking, and debating. Today, we walk around with hand-held computers and have access to the aggregate of all human knowledge. Every question we have can be answered within milliseconds. Some of the magic embedded in the experience of asking questions has been lost.
And so perhaps this year, rather than rushing to answer the questions asked at the Seder, let’s encourage those around our table to come up with questions, and then sit with those questions for a bit. Swirl them around in our minds. Feel the discomfort of not knowing. Let’s encourage children to pose questions to their tech-unsavvy grandparents and watch as those children learn the subtle distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Let’s encourage the adults around our table to wait patiently as the youngest at the table articulates what he or she is thinking – and watch as those adults remember what it feels like to wonder.
This year let’s replace data with dialogue, algorithms with affection; let’s replace the metaverse with the process of our mesorah.
Yael Leibowitz teaches at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning and is a frequent lecturer in North America and the United Kingdom. For more of Yael’s writing, visit yaelleibowitz.com
BY RABBI DAVID BLOCK
Props, treats, and Seder “schtick” can be effective ways of making the Seder fun (even for adults!), but here are 3 tips to help make our Sedarim meaningfully engaging – adaptable for any age and background.
- Every participant (host, guest, child, adult) should be asked to prepare – not (only) a presentation and not (only) a D’var Torah – but a question. A good, complex, thoughtful question about Pesach or Yetziat Mitzrayim that is born out of true curiosity. No need to have an answer. Share the question at the Seder, and open it up for discussion. The research – and my personal experience – shows that having a forum in which we can ask tough, important questions that matter to us helps us form a stronger religious identity and makes observance more meaningful. It’s where true learning occurs. But there’s a catch – and that brings us to the next point.
- Let’s focus less on the (important!) details around recounting the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim and more on the story itself. That means spending less time on why we wash during urchatz, why we eat karpas, and how long the meal in Bnei Brak actually lasted, and more time on what the night is about: The story of salvation, and how that salvation continues to replicate itself in our own lives today. The questions we prepare should focus on that.
- Print out the Ramban’s commentary on Shemot 13:16 (וְעַתָּה אוֹמֵר לְךָ) – in any language – and learn it at the Seder together. Then, ask everyone at the Seder: Where and why is it difficult to see Hashem in our everyday life? Beginning now, what can we do to try to see Hashem more often?
Rabbi David Block is Head of School at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, California.
BY RIFKA SONENBERG
When my parents realized their dream of Aliyah and stopped hosting our broader family Seder (in Toronto, anyway), we started a new tradition – the nuclear family Seder. We moved the entire Seder to the living room, covering the couches with sheets and adorning the coffee table with the Seder plate. All the leaning is a lot more comfortable on a couch, of course; but, more importantly, it breaks us out of the subconscious patterns of weekly meals at the dining room table. It is palpably different.
The round-robin reading of the haggadah – with an emphasis on frequent translations to ensure those with still-developing Hebrew and Aramaic skills are able to follow – allows for more conversation during the natural breaks in the flow. We return to the dining room table for the meal, but then it’s back to the couches for afikoman, the rest of Hallel and the final songs.
Big Sedarim that include people from different generations and different backgrounds reflect the inclusive spirit of the Seder and allow us to pass on the tradition in a natural way. The small Sedarim we’ve recently had reflect the vital focus on the questions and needs of the next generation. They have allowed us to have conversations with our children that didn’t happen when we accommodated other generations’ and other families’ timelines and attention spans. Both environments create formative, engaging experiences of וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, “and you shall tell your children,” which is the essence of the Seder.
Rifka Sonenberg is the Yoetzet Halacha and Director of the Canadian Yoatzot Initiative, based in Toronto, Canada. She teaches and provides academic support at Ulpanat Orot.
BY RABBI HESHIE BILLET
Finding ways to engage children on Seder night is an age-old challenge. As demonstrated by the four questions asked at the beginning of the haggadah – in our home the questions were asked in Hebrew, English, French, Yiddish, and Russian (when we had a Russian guest) – questions and answers are a time tested method of drawing children into the Seder.
Several Talmudic sources tell us of the importance of strategies to engage children at the Seder:
- The Tosefta (Pesachim 10:9) speaks of “stealing” matzot to keep the children awake, while the Talmud (Pesachim 109a) reveals that Rabbi Akiva, who never canceled yeshiva studies, did so on the eve of Pesach so that the children should stay awake. Do whatever it takes! At our Seder we dress up as Pharaoh, Moshe and Miriam and use toy frogs to engage our children and grandchildren.
- Rashbam and Rabbeinu Chananel add that the purpose of many aspects of the Seder is to arouse the curiosity of the children to ask questions. We also find other ideas like giving out nuts to the children to be beneficial.
- The “four sons” at the Seder teaches the idea of inclusion. Not only the wise, but also the simple, the ignorant, and the wicked children participate.
When describing the commandment of “telling your child,” Maimonides makes the point of saying “and here the child asks.” (Chametz and Matzah, Chapter 7) If our children don’t play an active role at the Seder, we do not fulfill the command!
Rabbi Heshie Billet is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere.