December 11, 2018

The Seder of Repairing Ourselves

We’re living in very noisy times. We holler for joy if our team wins during March Madness, and we holler for change if we are Marching for Our Lives. We holler on cable news shows because it’s good for ratings, and we holler in anger with those who don’t share our views.

The new generation is especially good at making noise and getting noticed, as we are reminded from this recent piece in The Atlantic:

“Generation Z — a cohort of Americans who came of age in the era of cable news and social media and an omnipresent internet — is extremely savvy about the workings of the American media. The March for Our Lives was, in the best ways, a testament to that. It offered, in its official programming, a series of set pieces: moments serving not only as political activism, but also as tailor-made sound bites for CNN, as snippets of video perfect for sharing online.”

We’ve reached a point where expressing ourselves in public has become a sacred calling. As the chaos emanating out of Washington increases, as the reasons to march multiply, as cable news shows keep fighting for ratings, and as social media becomes our weapon of choice to deliver minute-to-minute outrage, we can expect things to only get louder.

There’s truth in the idea that the better we can repair ourselves, the better we’ll repair the world.

Where does the Passover seder fit into all this?

In one sense, Passover will just feed into the noise if we focus solely on curing the world. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Working to repair the world is one of the highest values, and it takes noise to bring about change.

But equally essential is a human value that makes little noise but forces us to confront our weaknesses — the value of repairing ourselves. Yes, there’s truth in the idea that the better we can repair ourselves, the better we’ll repair the world.

In that spirit, this year we thought we’d create a “Seder to Refine Our Character.”

Thanks to the sharp minds of Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles and educator Tamar Andrews, we have designed a user-friendly seder guide that connects the four major sections of the seder — the four cups — to individual character traits.

We picked character traits that we felt connect nicely to the themes of the Passover seder. They’re hardly a complete list, so feel free to add your own.

Here’s just a little sampling of our character seder guide:

On the first trait of Curiosity, Rabbi Klein Miles writes: “Why is this night different from all other nights? The entire Passover seder is designed to spark curiosity. What’s that new item on the table? Why are we eating these strange combinations of foods? Curiosity is at the heart of all learning, all growth.”

Tamar Andrews adds: “How do we spark curiosity in our children and in ourselves? By acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. We focus on the process of discovery rather than on the discovered. This means paying attention to the search, the quest and questions. It means kvelling when our children ask astute questions, not just when they answer correctly.”

You will see this back and forth for each character trait — a more “religious” take from the rabbi and a more educational one from Andrews.

A refined character is not obsessed with loud self-expression but with quiet self-appraisal.

For the second character trait of Courage, the rabbi writes: “The rabbis say, ‘Who is strong? One who overpowers one’s inclinations.’ (Pirkei Avot 4:1) In other words, true courage is about conquering our inner fears.” Andrews adds that being brave is “allowing ourselves to be imperfect and not always being ready, but knowing that when the opportunity presents itself, we won’t cower.”

For the trait of Kindness, the rabbi writes: “One year when Rabbi Israel Salanter was too sick to supervise the baking of matzahs, his students asked him how to do it. He answered, ‘If you want the matzah to be truly kosher, be kind to the woman who kneads the dough. … For Rabbi Salanter, the matzah was kosher if the workers were treated kindly.”

Andrews adds: “We are born to be completely selfish. … So young children have a knack for selfishness. Kindness is the exact opposite, as it requires one to be empathetic and generous. This quality does not come naturally.”

For the fourth character trait of Humility, the rabbi writes: “Torah also hides the location of Moses’ burial place. Could it be that the greatest Prophet lies in an unmarked tomb? We live in a competitive culture that encourages showing off and exaggerated happiness. But all improvement starts with humility.”

From Andrews: “With humility, the other character traits fall into place. To learn humility, we admit our mistakes to our children and to ourselves and raise children to be team players. We also encourage appropriate responses to success that acknowledge accomplishments but never to the point of arrogance.”

By definition, character traits are not meant to be noisy. A refined character is not obsessed with loud self-expression but with quiet self-appraisal. This inner struggle is itself the reward.

Chag sameach.