The Seder: Masterclass in Jewish Education

The Passover Seder is like a masterclass

This Pesach journal is dedicated in memory of my mother, Deborah Simons A”H, who passed away this year. She was a dedicated teacher, sparking the love of Judaism in hundreds of area schoolchildren. Pesach was her favorite holiday, she often said, and she looked forward to Pesach evenings. As an educator, she saw the Seder a bit differently than the rest of us. To her, the Seder was a masterclass in how Jewish education should work — not by driving factoids into minds, but by inspiring children to learn. And it has worked so well that it continues to intrigue children of all ages, as it has done for millennia.

The Seder is not a dry and rote history lecture. The Torah consciously specified a more lively setting:
 
And you shall tell to your son on that day, “It is because of what the L-rd did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Shemot 13:8).
 
Let’s focus on two lessons from this verse. First, the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus was to be done as a discussion — a retelling — to one’s children. Second, it is to be done on the same evening when we have laid before us the matzot, the bitter herbs of marror, and the other things we now associate with the Seder table. As the Rambam (Maimonides) notes:
 
According to a biblical positive command, we must tell on the night preceding the fifteenth day of Nisan all about the miracles and wonders that were performed for our forefathers in Egypt. As it is stated (Shemot 13:3), “Remember this day that you went out of Egypt”; just as it is stated (Shemot 20:8), “Remember the day of the Shabbat.” And from where [do we know] that [the remembering] is on the night of the fifteenth? [Hence,] we learn to say (Shemot 13:8), “And you shall recount to your son on that day, saying, ‘Because of this’“ – at the time that there is matzah and bitter herbs (being ‘this’) laying in front of you (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:1).
 
As my mother would often explain, both of these elements – that the Hagaddah must be an immersive dialogue, and that it must be done with physical representations of the Exodus in front of us, suggest several lessons for effective Jewish education.
 
Making the Past Come Alive
 
The Haggadah cannot be simply relating a story of what happened to a bunch of other people a long time ago. We must experience for ourselves the hardship of the slavery. This is summed up by the Haggadah’s statement that “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.”  This is a key element of Jewish education — the days of old must come alive. Thus, the Seder is incomplete unless one uses imagination to see oneself standing in the slave pits of Egypt, with the heat of the desert sun on one’s head and the crack of the whip on one’s back. Only then can one understand the pain, misery and despair our ancestors felt. Only then can one fully appreciate the relief and joy that accompanied being freed of that torment. Only then can one burst into song and praise to Hashem for His deliverance.
 
But in directing that we experience the Exodus personally, the Rabbis of old were teaching a broader lesson, too: all of the Torah is for our time. In the Shema, we recite the verse (Devarim 6:6) that the Torah is commanded to us “today.” We must, every day, try to invest that sort of immediacy in our own lives and in what we teach our children.
 
Props like these Passover finger puppets make the seder more enjoyable for all.
 
Demonstrative Aids
 
How does one engage one’s children so that they invest themselves in the story? Again, the Seder provides a timeless method for gaining interest: demonstrative aids — things that engage the senses, whether by sight, by touch, or by taste. Perhaps this is why the mitzvah of retelling the Exodus can only be done when the matzah and bitter herbs are in front of us. What the Torah may be revealing is that good education must provide a “hands-on” experience. And so, for this night, we do things differently: the matzah and marror, the karpas (the green vegetable), leaning to one side at key points of the service. We cover and uncover the matzahs. We lift (or point to) various items on the seder plate. We have wine, yet we spill some.
 
According to the Rambam, one can and should go further and introduce additional changes:
 
On the first night of Pesach, one should introduce some change at the table, so that the children who will notice it may ask, saying: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And he in turn will reply: “This is what happened.” In what manner, for example, should he introduce a change? He may distribute parched grain or nuts to the children; remove the table from its usual place; snatch the unleavened bread from hand to hand, and so on.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:3.)
 
Innovation at the Passover seder are also a means for helping children to ask questions at the seder.
 
 
The encouragement to innovate has given birth to delightful customs across the world. For instance, there is a Yemenite custom to sling the matzah across one’s back. At Seders in the Persian community, they flick each other with scallions. Handing off the matzah gave rise to hijinks over the Afikomen. Today, all sort of new aids are available: puppets and costumes, toys reflecting the 10 plagues, and so forth. All of these novelties at the Seder table are to a purpose: to awaken children’s curiosity and get them to ask questions.
 
Encouraging Questions
 
ndeed, the mitzvah of the Haggadah is best performed when the children are inspired to ask. The Torah recognized that children are most receptive to learn when they are attentive, engaged, and their interest is piqued. The Hagaddah opens with two successive rounds of children asking questions. First, children at the Seder sing the Four Questions of the Mah Nishtanah — why is this night different, with the matzah and the marror, with the dippings and the leanings? Second, we have the various questions asked by the four sons.
 
Are those the only questions we care about for the Seder? The Rambam’s language can be read to suggest a broader line of inquiry.
 
We [then] pour the second cup; and here the son asks. And [then] the reader says, “What differentiates this night from all [other] nights? (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Chametz and Matzah 8:2)
 
The language here diverges from what we expect: it simply says that the child asks, and the reader then poses the Mah Nishtanah questions. This can be read, the child can ask (and is encouraged to ask) any and all questions which occur to the child. We are encouraging a probing, inquisitive mind.
 
Allowing children a safe forum for such intellectual quests is essential to a proper Jewish education. As one leading modern educator put it:
 
The quest for authentic spirituality requires confronting the issues that challenge an individual’s belief in themselves, in G-d, and in their capacity to connect the two. Our educational system celebrates questioning and innovation in the realm of textual analysis, but is less tolerant of such critical thinking in the realms of dogmatic philosophy and halachic standards…While, it is not spiritually healthy to encourage the pursuit of every question and doubt to its absolute conclusion, the incongruence between the dogmatic approach to religious ideals and the critical thinking that underscores most academic and professional endeavors risks creating an unintended and often intense crisis of faith. Forums are needed to address these issues, and to validate curiosity as a mature and passionate dimension of religious growth. (Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012)
 
ll sorts of questions about Jewish traditions are on the Seder table. Allowing and inciting children to ask such broader questions in the safe environment of the Seder allows us to stimulate their growth, while directing it in healthy directions.
 
Teach According to the Child’s Attitude and Ability 
 
Finally, the Hagaddah reveals that we must teach each child according to the child’s engagement and capacity to absorb information. This is the lesson of the four sons. For the wise son, we teach him the laws to observe the holiday and we do not stop until we have covered the end of the Seder: the Afikomen. To the simple son, who can only posit a basic question, we give more basic answers. Some children do not know how to ask questions, but they too deserve an education, and so we instruct them all the same according to their ability. Even the wicked son — the rasha — is given an answer to a question that seemingly sets him off from the rest of the nation.
 
Again, the question and answer format of the Seder allows for constructive forms of growth. According to Rabbi Norman Lamm, our task with the rasha is to argue and debate with him to show that his values are distorted. How do we accomplish this task?  The Haggadah provides the answer by instructing that “You [atah] will blunt his teeth.”  According to Rabbi Lamm, “Bring your ‘atah’, your own self and personality into this dialogue. Teach by example”  (The Royal Table 41). Be authentic. Be genuine. Be positive. Even if the wicked child will not participate in the ceremonies tonight, we can show that there is a different way. Encourage the questioning and direct the questioner. And perhaps next Seder, the former rasha will be asking a different question.
 
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And so, the Hagaddah service, set up by the Torah and given greater details by the Rabbis so many years ago, continues to teach us how to teach, how to provide inspiration and illumination, and how to pass on our legacy to the next generation.
 
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