What is the Point of the Seder?

Image: A family seder in Israel, 2013. (Photo by Ofir.1970)

A seder is like an apple. For Jews, it is not exotic. It is officially required, implying that it’s “good for you.” Like a Red Delicious apple, many seders are routine and flavorless, generic. At its saddest, someone reads Hebrew aloud, everyone sits around and endures the flow of words until “Shulchan Orech” is announced: “Time to eat!”

In some families they just give up and skip the haggadah entirely.

In other seders, there are family activities that are both beloved (“we’ve been doing this for years!”) and frankly, ossified: the same stories and activities done so many years in a row that the juice is gone.

The seder is the primary educational event in a Jewish lifetime, repeated at annual intervals because as we go through our lives we change and grow. The world changes around us.

At a really great seder, we remember the Exodus, or some aspects of the story, and we look for insight on our current situation, whatever that might be.

As my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes in his Martini Judaism column this week, it’s all about questions. Mind you, it is not about the answers: if the questions are good enough, the answers will not be simple or obvious. Sometimes there will be no answers, but by covering the terrain together, we can understand our moment in history (personal or public) a little better.

Rabbi Salkin offers a great set of questions: click the link above and check them out. I’ll offer some others:

  • In what part of your life do you feel enslaved? What does Exodus from that look like?
  • Everyone name a present-day plague. See if you can get to consensus on one plague you all hate the most.
  • The Haggadah doesn’t mention Moses. The Book of Exodus is practically ALL Moses. How important is leadership and what does leadership look like?
  • Is there someone who was a regular at our seder who has died since last Pesach? What are your best memories of them?
  • For each person: Tell a story about the time you personally escaped from an Egypt. Extra points if it is a story you haven’t told this group before. Let people ask questions about the stories.
  • Regarding the afikomen: Many of us, if not most of us, have “broken pieces” in our lives that we usually keep hidden. Anyone want to bring their “afikomen” to light and tell the story?
  • Who do you identify with in the Exodus story? Is there anyone you feel sorry for? Angry at?

If you ask many questions, your seder will be better.

If you use the haggadah as a set of suggestions for an improvised bit of performance art, your seder will be better.

If you share stories around the table your seder will be better.

If you make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk, and everyone listens to them talk, your seder will be better.

And remember, when someone spills a glass of wine, it’s an opportunity to re-enact the crossing of the Red Sea. Or the plague of blood, your choice.

Then your seder will be a Honeycrisp apple, a Macintosh, a Gala, a Braeburn – let us know how it went in the comments!

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

4 thoughts on “What is the Point of the Seder?”

  1. So, I think I am going to add – Name a present day plague and try to get everyone to do a different one. I am going to jot down their responses. Then, I will name each plague and everyone will have three votes. This way, we should be able to determine the top three new plagues. Then, we will add them to the list of modern day plagues that we read and do the drops of wine on plates for these. Should be pretty interesting. Thanks! Chag Sameach!

      1. The Haggadah that I use lists 10 ‘modern’ plagues and then lists the original 10 plagues. We read both sets, dropping a fingertip of wine on our plates for each of the plagues. Then, I asked each person to share a present-day plague. We got 10 (there were 12 at the table). The list was: stupidity, lying, arrogance, school violence, hunger for power, moral vandalism, deliberate ignorance, deceit, cruelty, apathy. I gave everyone three votes. I read each new plague and the top three vote getters were: arrogance, moral vandalism, and lying. We dipped a drop of wine for the these three new plagues. It was a conversation starter and continued on later. Chag Samayach!

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