Putting the Hagadah Aside

It is such an important night, an opportunity to inspire and spiritually invigorate our children, family and friends.  But how will we do it?  What’s our approach?  How will we appeal both to the young and the older, reach the educated and uninformed?  Perhaps these are questions that heads of families and Seder leaders are asking themselves these days as we prepare for Pesach. 

This past Shabbot, for the first time, I gave a Shabbot HaGadol drasha to the yeshiva and the Anglo community in Adam.  I prepared a talk/class about the all important, once a year mitzvah, of והגדת לבנך telling our children the story of Yitziat Mitzrayim our Exodus from Egypt on Seder Night.  Presented here are some of the teachings and thoughts from the talk.

Since it is not obvious from the context of verse where we find the mitzvah of והגדת לבנך (Shemot 13:8), Chaza”l teach us when exactly do we tell the story to our children?  When matzah and marror are in front of us, the night of the 15th of Nissan, is the appropriate time for the story of our redemption.  It is clear that matzah and marror help us tell the story, as Raban Gamliel teaches us, but is that the only reason they are present when we tell the story to our children?

Based on the Gemara in Psachim 108b, the Rambam (Hil’ Chametz U’Matza chap. 7) teaches us that we have to “make changes,” stun our children with surprises at the beginning of the Seder.  The karpas, giving children goodies, lifting up the table or Seder plate, hiding/stealing the afikoman are all for this one purpose – to engage the children so they will be brought to ask about the uniqueness of this night.  Here there is no doubt room for families to be creative with their methods of intriguing the children.

To a greater or lesser extent, the stage of Mah Nishtana (or any time before) is the point in which the children are meant to be expressing their sincere curiosity at the odd behavior they are witnessing on this bizarre night.

The Mishnah in Psachim 116a instructs us that “a father teaches a child according to the level of understanding of the child.”  The Rambam explains, “For simple children one should say we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us and brought us to freedom.  For older and wiser children we teach them exactly what happened in Egypt and the miracles that were done to us by Moshe, everything according to the understanding of the child.”

We see from the Mishnah and Rambam that the telling of the story, how it is told and all discussions on this night are subjective, based on the level of the children or the audience at the Seder.

It should be plainly clear that many of us get it wrong at all three stages of the Seder.

Now, being an Orthodox Rabbi, I do not want to be too critical of tradition.  The procedure and structure of the Hagadah are important, dear and precious to us.  However, it very well could be that families are fulfilling the Hagadah and what’s written there, (as we should), but they are not fulfilling the Mitzvah of  והגדת לבנך.

If what we are doing at the beginning of the Seder is not engaging or stirring our children in any way, because they have seen the same practices the last seven years, it is time to add a new “change” to stun and surprise them.  Rav Melamed, in Pninai Halacha, novelty explains even the Mitzvot D’Orayta of Korban Pesach, eating matzah and marror are central to this night in order that the children will ask.

Second, it is special and emotional to teach and hear our children recite Mah Nishtana (they should), but it is not the point.  The goal is to have the children asking spontaneous questions, speaking and sharing freely and genuinely.   In this way they will open up and listen to their parent’s precious teachings about the story and core beliefs connected to Yitziat Mitzrayim and freedom.

What exactly should the parents respond with?  Let us assume that the parents themselves understand the meaning and essence of the text and different sections of the Maggid (which is not at all clear).  What are the chances that the language, style and message will speak to our children? It is highly unlikely that reading the text of the Hagadah or sharing an idea on the Hagadah compares even slightly to the experience of an authentic discussion between parents and children about Yitziat Mitzrayim.

My suggestion is that after Mah Nishtana we collect the Hagadot and temporarily put them aside.  First, you will shock your children and family, which is exactly the point.  If spontaneous discussion has yet to occur, prepare some trigger questions which will engage the children and family, subjective to level and needs of the children.  And then let the conversation go.  Listen, teach, tell, exchange, inspire, provoke, imbue (values) and share the story and message of this cosmic night.  (This new approach does require that the leaders themselves have a basic familiarity with the story found in [Shemot, Vaera and Bo] so they can authentically share it, but not anything more than that.)

I vividly remember the S’darim from my childhood.  Seder night each year was spent with the Kriger Family, dear cousins from my mother’s side.  There were creative songs, unique tunes, striking Hagadot, but most of all there were lively discussions in which children participated and were meant to feel like adults.  The energy was electric.  Children of all ages sat at the table late into the night and experienced the joy and freedom that all Jews should be experiencing this night.

When children feel like they are active participants in the discussion at the Seder this opens up worlds for them.  It might even, ultimately, bring them to feel like they are active participants in the on-going personal and national redemption story of our people.  For a Jewish parent, that is a priceless gift.

Then at this stage, after a powerful and meaningful discussion, including personal involvement of all the participants, pick up the Hagadah once again.  Chant the text, perform the rituals, keep the Mitzvot and sing the Hallel songs.  Without a doubt, the feeling of connection to tradition, our heritage and our story will have been significantly elevated for you and your family.

Chag Samaach,

Shalom Tzvi