Thursday, April 21, 2011

Beyond the Four Questions: A Grown-up Seder

This year, our family’s three youngest children could not make the seder.  But even they are adults in their very early 20s.  Their older cousins and siblings, ages 22 and 23, were the babies present.

Coincidentally, in preparation for Pesach, I had studied Rambam with my rabbi, Andrea Merow.  I came to appreciate that the emphasis is not on the traditional four questions, but our goal is inquiry that leads to the telling of the exodus story.

So I prepared for a more grown-up seder.  On March 30, I sent an email note to our seder’s attendees:

Hi, all.  The four questions are not a seder requirement.  However, according to Rambam we need to raise questions that would lead to the telling of the story--with it feeling as much like a reliving of the story as possible.

So, in preparation for this year's seder, please send me some suggested questions that might get us there--in as serious or as silly a manner as you like--and I'll do my best to weave them in.  Please get  them to me by April 10.

My family stepped up to the plate (an apt metaphor, given that the Phillies ended up playing an extra-innings game on seder night… one that, sadly, they lost in the  12th …making many of our group’s attention to the seder an extraordinary testament to their engagement in the story-telling that resulted from their input). Here is the discussion guide from which we narrated the exodus:

Questions / Telling the Story – Part 1

Why were the Jews slaves in Egypt to begin with?


"As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at Mayo Clinic. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent." -Martin Luther King, Jr.

With this in mind…how did the Jews gain their freedom, and at what cost to others?


At the time of the Exodus, was the land of Israel uninhabited?  How were the Israelites “directed” to deal with whomever was there? Are there any lessons to be drawn regarding how Israel is today dealing with new settlements on the West Bank and around Jerusalem?


Return to the Hagaddah for The Ten Plagues

Questions / Telling the Story – Part 2

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." -James Baldwin

Considering Baldwin’s words, why do we read the Haggadah every year?  Why tell the story?

Why don’t we tell new stories?


Connecting the story to history: Should we try to reconcile the Exodus story with archaeological findings/historical reporting?

Connecting the story to modernity: Many use the story of the Exodus as a template for understanding the modern world, e.g., American Slavery as Egyptian Slavery, Miriam as feminist symbol, etc. What risks do we run when we map the Exodus story onto present-day narratives?


Connecting the story to contemporary issues :  What does the ancient history of the region, beginning with the story of the exodus, teach us about current events in the region and inform US policy, e.g. on Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq?


Connecting the story to our personal experience:  Why on this night are the youngest children not present? Their freedom to be who they want to be?


Taking inspiration:  Tell about a person, living or not, most embodies freedom for .

The meal

In preparation for the meal:  Why on this night do we restrict what we eat even more than usual and is God really that interested in what we eat?


In the past, we’ve sought to keep the seder within the confines of children’s attention spans.  Each year, we’ve incorporated a new, creative addition—for example, decorating our own reclining pillows before sitting down at the table (we still use those pillows 10 years later)—but never had we purposefully lengthened the requisite elements.

Our seder—the discussion around our questions, the remaining required components and the festive meal—lasted 3-1/2 hours.  We loved every moment.  The conversation went in many directions, touching on the holocaust, American slavery, Jewish slave holders, the civil rights movement, military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya…and more…and in the process we did tell the full exodus story. Participants ranging from age 22 to age 86 shared equally in the discussion, sometimes sparring though always with mutual respect and open to learning from each other. In appropriate Pesach parlance, this year was different from all other years.

Our 20-somethings reverted to childhood when it came time to hunt for the afikomen (anyone without progeny was qualified to search).  When the time comes again that there are young children at the table, we will take joy in encouraging them in the traditional four questions and will happily keep the seder short enough to meet their needs.  But for now, it’s fun being grown ups.