parsha of the week

Showing our guests why the Seder is important


One of the bigger challenges we face on Pesach evening is keeping everyone around the table engaged throughout the Seder.

Whether we read the Haggadah straight (boring to some), have many Torah thoughts (too much for some), try to do it in both English and Hebrew (trying to the impatient), or really discuss the Exodus (we’re pulling teeth here), it is a Herculean task to be able to appeal to everyone all at the same time. Kids are bouncing off the walls, some young parents are as well; people who are used to a little more quiet might get shaky at the noise, and every other combination of factors can give us a sense that the challenges are insurmountable.

But I think that the Seder is actually called Seder (order) because, with a little preparation, order can be maintained almost to its end.

I recall a friend of mine, a rebbe in a yeshiva, telling me some years ago that he and his colleagues can be wonderful at what they do, but the real litmus test of their teaching is at the Seder. If the kids are prepared, the rebbe or morah is great. If the kids don’t know what’s flying, the teachers are terrible, and why are we paying so much for tuition!

While I certainly hear that view and feel his pain, I partially disagree with him for two reasons. The first is because the Seder is supposed to be a dialogue between parents and children. If the kids know everything (or certainly if they know more than the parents) before they get to the table, then the Mah Nishtana becomes a joke, a recitation that is meaningless — not only because they know the answers, but because they don’t really need their parents’ information. The whole point of the Mah Nishtana is for the child to ask a question hoping for the parent to shine a little light on the situation!

The second reason is that if each child is going to grandstand on his or her divrei Torah, others around the table might also lose patience with the proceedings.

So I believe our challenge is two-fold. First to find a meaningful balance between sharing planned divrei Torah and being spontaneous. This means finding a way to keep those around the table engaged.

The second challenge we have is how to transmit a legacy in the precious few hours of the Seder. The Passover Seder is one of the few times throughout the year that full families or near-entire families gather together. Of course our Seder consists of all the mitzvoth of the evening, the telling of the story of the Exodus and the eating of matzah, marror and the four cups of wine. But wouldn’t it be fascinating to open a slightly different conversation about why we continue to do this?

There are incredible stories of sacrifice and dedication demonstrated by people, in recent history, who did what they could even under the most trying of circumstances, to observe Pesach properly. During the Holocaust some people went to great lengths to make matzahs when possible.

A few years ago a document was released to the public, written in Bergen Belsen 1944 by Rabbi Yissachar-Bernard Davids, stating that before eating chametz, which was absolutely necessary for survival, people should say, “Our father in heaven: It is known to you that our desire is to fulfill Your will and to celebrate the holiday of Pesach through the eating of matzah and the observance of the prohibition of chametz. However this is what is causing our hearts distress for the slavery is preventing us and our souls are in peril. We are ready and willing to fulfill your commandment to ‘live with them, and not die with them’ and to be punctilious of your warning to ‘be very careful and guard your life very much.’ Therefore we pay that you should keep us alive and redeem us soon so we may observe your laws (properly) yet again, and fulfill Your will, and serve You with a complete heart.”

As the tale goes, after making this declaration, he made the appropriate blessings (including Shehechiyanu) and passed bread around to those who were at the “Seder” in that hell.

Who does this? Would we have the strength to even issue such a prayer? Or would we just eat the bread, because we know we need to in order to survive?

If we can prompt questions from children, and if we can get them to listen to our tales of what brought us to this table, of why we value Pesach, the Seder, Judaism, being part of this People, perhaps our Seder will become the most valuable conversation of the year.

And hopefully, one which no one will want to walk away from for any reason.