I’ve led many seders and read many commentaries on the haggadah. It’s a very profound holiday, very profound writing, and a very profound rite. Yet, I think we might have something wrong — “rite” notwithstanding.
Most of the seders I’ve led are “public” seders. I know that most people have barely led a handful. So, I understand that some of what follows might seem a little “technical.” Best I can say is – take from it what you can, and know that each year gives you progressively more experience in leading/having a seder. Hopefully, this piece will be helpful, little by little, over time.
The haggadah says that it’s “praiseworthy” to prolong the telling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery as long as possible.
“Praiseworthy,” yes – for adults. Not necessarily for children. And maybe not even for adults who aren’t as interested as I might be.
I’ve posted several pieces on the seder in the last couple of weeks, three on “Pharaoh” earlier this year, and a couple on the words “Pesach” and “Pass-over” in the last few days. Learning-in-advance (including writing) makes this or any holiday much more meaningful to me.
But this year, when asked to lead a seder at a friend’s house that would include 4 children under the age of 12, I began thinking in a different direction.
I realized: the most important people at the seder are the kids.
Not me as the leader; not the other adults. The kids. The whole purpose of the seder is to tell the story to the children. But, I should add — in a way that makes the experience positive and meaningful; one that they’ll remember and want to repeat (hopefully, for years and years).
Too often, kids’ memories of their seders are of being bored and hungry. Their best memories are often of the food itself. I think we can do better for them.
The model on which the seder is built, of an authoritarian “patriarch” — or “matriarch’ — “leading” the seder, giving directions and wisdom that are then followed obediently by the children, doesn’t really “work” in our American-based culture at this time; not the way it worked in other times and places. The children want our wisdom and guidance (more than they realize), but they want to be actively involved in the process, too. We have to engage them; give them a chance to form and express their own feelings; make them part-ners in their own learning. We can “guide” them, to the extent that they’ll let us. We have to recognize and honor whatever extent they choose. In the old days, kids were expected to show us that they were listening to us. Yes, they should listen to us. But we have to show them that we’re listening to them, too.
There can be a certain “flow” that helps keep their interest, just like watching a performance or playing a game. Interrupt the “flow” and you can break kids’ attention (the adults’, too). Once broken, it’s not easy to get back.
Like teaching a lesson, doing a sales presentation, arguing your client’s case in court, etc., a seder is best done well-prepared. If you wait until you’re at the seder itself before you look at the haggadah, don’t be surprised if you find yourself puzzled, frantically turning pages looking for directions. In the mean-time, the kids can only wait (hopefully patiently).
So, soon after Purim, choose the haggadah you’ll use and look through it; the more you look, the better. You could also check out a dvd or a “youtube” video of a seder. I’m sure you can find one. But you’re going to want to be familiar with the haggadah, in any case.
We want to make the seder “happy” without being silly. “Fun” can add to the story-telling, without interrupting, distracting or digressing from it. But the fun should be part of the flow of the seder. Digressions or interruptions can make it frustrating to keep coming back to what we’re really there to do. Interest, like attention, can be quickly lost.
We also want to include “fun” without unintentionally giving the message, “Don’t take any of this seriously.” The trick, of course, is to find the balance between the “fun” and the seriousness of the event. I won’t here prescribe specific ways to do that — I’m sure it would vary from family to family, group to group and time to time. You’re all very welcome to post ways you’ve done it as a “comment” to this piece. Your experience could really help someone else.
Of the steps of the seder, I’ve found “u’r’chatz” and “rach’tzah” — the two “washing” steps — problematic at public, or even large private seders. Every-thing stops while people stand, walk and line up to rinse their hands (it’s really a “rinsing” rather than a soap-and-water washing), then return to their seats and wait for everyone else to finish. Again, it can interrupt “the flow.” One solution could be to have multiple cups or, even better, multiple stations, so that as many people as possible can wash at the same time and proceed with the seder as quickly as possible. At times, I, as leader, have even done the washing myself, as “proxy” for everyone else. Again – I think people can find their own solutions to this. Mainly, you want to try and get each of these steps done as quickly as possible.
I also go through the first four steps (Kaddesh/U’r’chatz/Karpas/Yachatz) without discussion. This allows us to get well into the seder quickly. Once we get to the 5th section, “Maggid,” we can ask questions about things we’ve already done, too.
“Maggid” is the longest and most complicated step of the entire seder. Be well-acquainted with it in advance, for it to go smoothly. It includes parts that are straight narrative, expanded by many small interpretive additions (particularly extended interpretations of words). Those additions can be bypassed as long as the narrative – the basic story – is told. Again, editing this means: look at it in advance.
I’ve also written a short post, clarifying another aspect of this section: https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/4-3-11-seder-iii-the-maggid-section/
For younger children, what we do can be more important than what we say. You can adapt your style to that, knowing that as they get older (especially while still young), you might be able to build additional levels of understanding on what they already know from “doing.”
Of course, none of this is meant to say that you shouldn’t lengthen your seder to the extent that it’s comfortable. If you’ve done seders with your family and the children, older now, want to do parts that had been left out in previous years – by all means, go for it!
Make the reading of the haggadah and the story-telling at least as good a memory for children as the delicious food will be!