It is important for children to be involved in the seder. However, at the risk of being labeled a Litvak Grinch, I must state that the seder, like the rest of Judaism, is not primarily a pediatric enterprise. Certainly we want children to participate and, yes, we do many things to stimulate their curiosity and keep them awake for as long as possible. Nevertheless, the memories we seek to create should be more significant than where did daddy hide the afikoman, or how tasty was grandma’s brisket.
As a teenager, I once attended a relative’s seder with many children in attendance. The adult discussions and hermeneutical pyrotechnics – with appropriate digressions and questions for the children – were deliriously and deliciously way above my head. I could hardly follow the give-and-take debates and the learned analyses as each part of the haggadah was dissected and passages were explained with creativity and ingenuity.
This was a seder I had never experienced before, but resolved to re-create. The following year, I spent months studying the text and (with his permission) put annotated footnotes in my late father’s haggadah. He read them, asked his own questions, and so began an annual tradition of study, analysis, and discussion at the seder on a higher level.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, taught that the haggadah has the status of talmud torah, i.e. it is to be an exercise in Torah study. The festive meal is the least important part of the seder. In fact, in order to eat the afikoman by mid-the-night (approximately 1 a.m.) when the time limit for eating the paschal lamb expires, many families have to rush the meal since so much time is taken up in discussion. A group of Sages, as narrated in the haggadah, were so engrossed in their discussions of the Exodus that they were unaware that it was time for the morning prayers. Surely then, this pre-occupation is deeper than singing Chad Gadya.
The haggadah, after the Tanach and the siddur, is the most popular Jewish text, with over 5,000 published commentaries. Today’s explosion of haggadah commentaries in English offers something for everyone. It does take time to prepare, but the effort is worthwhile. Instead of just dryly reading, speed reading, or skipping some of the text entirely, discussions about the meaning of the seder symbols, talmudic passages that make up the haggadah text, the biblical narrative, and the deeper meaning of freedom, can make the seder a more experiential and participatory event.
The mathematics of the seder (three matzot, four questions, four cups, four sons, 10 plagues and their exponential development) makes for interesting discussions, as well. The songs added at the end of the seder are also fruitful areas of inquiry to be mined.
The Four Questions are the minimum needed to extract the basic understanding of the Exodus and the seder. This annual event should not be a dreaded ritual, but an opportunity for growth. Every level of knowledge can be accommodated, and for us in the diaspora there are two nights in which to do it. Passages can be assigned in advance and questions can be given out. That is the lesson of the Four Sons. Re-enacting the Exodus can be enjoyable and educational – for everyone.
Rabbi Yaakov Lessin, of blessed memory, was fond of saying that on Pesach one must remove the chametz, the leaven, from within us. That which puffs us up like the yeast in the dough needs to be eliminated. We are still slaves today to a pseudo-sophistication that does not take our heritage seriously. We are still in a state of cerebral bondage that denies the beauty and erudition of our sacred texts.
We need to free ourselves from the token and often perfunctory observance of our most precious rituals.
The talmudic sage Rabban Gamliel, as we note during the Magid portion of the seder, teaches us that at the very least we must discuss and understand the meaning of three things: the paschal sacrifice, matzah, and bitter herbs. Only when we do understand them, he explains, do we fulfill the obligation of the seder. Our seder has developed over the centuries as a time when families come together to rejoice in our freedom. In the words of another sage (and from a different context), Hillel, the rest is commentary-go study.