Seder Storytelling

There’s much to be done as we turn to this month’s Pesach passage to freedom: menus to be planned, guests to be invited, homes to be cleaned of their chametz (leavening). I start thinking about the most important aspect of a successful seder: creating a fun-filled, positive Jewish experience which, for the time it takes to tell, sing and eat, will help us relive the story of our exodus from Egypt.

Whether you believe the exodus from Egypt is historical reality or myth containing the power of religious truth, the Pesach story tells Jews who we were, who we are and how we must live our lives. Our seder is supposed to be a transformational experience. Through it, we recall symbolically and spiritually our central story: Once we were oppressed, then we cried out, “Enough.” The Source of all Healing and Salvation provided us with leaders, courage and strength to walk forth to freedom.

The Seder as More Than Recitation

For many Jews, the seder has become the rote recitation of ancient words and the mindless performance of meaningless rituals. But it was not meant to be that. In fact, when the ancient rabbis created the seder, it was an engaging pedagogical innovation to provide parents with a multisensory, experiential tool with which they could teach their children. In fact, the haggadah preserves the rabbis’ discussion of the teaching theory behind the seder. Remember the passage about the four children? It was never intended as a reading in the haggadah, but rather as a theory of teaching.

The Four Children as Teaching Theory

In the haggadah, the rabbis speak with reference to four children: one wise, one rebelliously cynical (often misinterpreted as “wicked”), one simple and one who does not know how to ask. The wise child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws and traditions and rituals which God has commanded us? This wise one, seeing himself or herself as part of the experience, seeks understanding of the Exodus and of the Pesach rituals. She/he requires a seder experience that is intellectual and comprehensive.

The rebelliously cynical child asks, “What is this service to you?” “You,” this one insinuates, not herself or himself, because she/he already is distanced from the story and experience. The cynic requires a seder experience led by a patiently engaging facilitator, who uses drama, visuals and learning games to retell the story.

The simple child asks, “What is this all about?” This child, plainly unclear about the significance of the experience, requires a seder filled with age-appropriate meaningful explanations.

As for the child who does not know how to ask, you shall begin teaching from the beginning; starting with the story and using the symbols and foods to pique his or her interest.

All of these children need their seder leaders to become vibrant storytellers. Our seder should model itself on positive bedtime story reading adventures, not the experience of having major surgery without anesthesia.

My wife Michelle and I have three wonderful yet very different children. We have learned that the differences between our children require that we rear each child in a manner unique to his or her specific needs, behaviors and aptitudes. Similarly, our seder experience must come alive, offering each child (and each participant) the entrée into Pesach that is appropriate to his or her learning style. One child thrives on play-acting; another wants to discuss the personalities of the main characters. A third is happy with singing and dipping the food. So we use the haggadah and our own creative ideas to provide each with tailored learning activities within the seder.

Adults Are Kids, Too

But what about adults? Does this haggadah passage teach us anything about the learning needs of adults?

Diane Pickton Schuster, director of the Jewish Lives/Jewish Learning Project at the Center for Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University, and Isa Aron, professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College’s Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education, interpret the ancient rabbis’ discussion of seder learning theory as it relates to how adults learn. In their article, “What Congregations Need to Know about the Adult Learner,” these scholar-teachers explain that synagogue learning opportunities, worship experiences and even home rituals like the seder need to take into account the different ways we each approach our Judaism.

Schuster and Aron teach: “The wise one may be symbolized by the congregant who has already learned to read some Hebrew and/or has had some experience with Jewish texts. She/he tends to be self-directed … to probe more deeply. The rebellious one represents the skeptic who asks, ‘What do these Jewish texts and traditions have to do with me … especially when there is pressing business (synagogue or personal) which needs our attention?’ The innocent one might signify the spiritual seeker who might be grappling with tough questions about ‘Who am I as a Jew?’ and ‘How can I find greater meaning in my life?’ The one who does not know what to ask might be the silent one, a congregant raised in a totally secular household, a woman discouraged from receiving a Jewish education, a man who suffered a humiliating experience preparing for his bar mitzvah, or perhaps a person who was raised to believe that only scholars and rabbis are qualified to be at the table of Jewish learning.”

The Four Children Inside Each of Us

In my own growth as a Jew and as a teacher of other Jews, I have found that at different times in our lives, each of us has assumed the Jewish role of the wise one, the skeptic, the spiritual seeker and the silent one. I have learned that a family’s home seder, in its commitment to touching all attendees — adults and children alike — needs to be a Jewish experience that addresses the particular approaches to Judaism of each of these types of Jews. You see, our story teaches that we were all part of the exodus from Egypt and that we were all at Mount Sinai when we received the Torah. So now, we all have a right to be part of the continuing saga of Judaism — including the skeptic and the one who does not know how to ask. We can start by welcoming the skeptic and allowing him/her to question even the most basic tenets of our faith and tradition. We can start by teaching the innocent one, touching the soul of the spiritual searcher and engaging the mind of the wise one. As Jewish storytellers, we want to reach out to those want to show up and find ways to engage those who dislike showing up.

This Pesach I will remember (metaphorically and dramatically) when I went forth from Egypt. This Pesach our family seder will provide all participants with opportunities to enjoy and celebrate and learn. I hope you will all transform your seders into such engaging experiences that the story can be retold joyously.