I am always looking for ways to take the text of the Haggadah and relate it directly to my guests at the seder.
I recall the seders of my youth at my grandparents’ home in Bushwick, Brooklyn, long before it was a trendy neighborhood. There the Haggadah was read in Hebrew, with little or no explanation or discussion. I want to avoid that experience.
I suggest a way to read about the four children to involve your guests. Near the beginning of the seder, we read the questions that the four children ask, each based on a verse in the Torah. That passage can be confusing because the questions of the wise child and the wicked child are so similar. According to the traditional text of the Haggadah, the wise child says, “What are the statues, the laws, and the ordinances which our God has commanded you?” (It is based on Deuteronomy 6:20.) The wicked child’s query is, “What does this ritual mean to you?” (It is based on Exodus 13:8.)
Some haggadot, based on a rabbinic variant of the text, have the wise child end the question with the word “us,” to show that she includes herself in the community, while the wicked child excludes herself by saying “you.” However, Aviva Zornberg, a modern Israeli scholar, contends that we should keep the word “you,” because “The wise son…asks a disturbing question, in which he opens up a distance between his father and himself. The father and his generation were there [at the actual Exodus]; he was not. This distinction between generations is always true.” (Quoted in the ” A Night to Remember” by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, p. 43.)
For all of us at the seder, our formative Jewish experiences vary. How different the memories and the meaning of being Jewish of a Holocaust survivor are from those of a young Jew born in the United States! Growing up Jewish in Fair Lawn is not the same as being reared Jewish in Russia, Brooklyn, Nashville, or Los Angeles. Some of us recall our fear and concern as we lived through the events of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars. I know members of my congregation who fought in Israel’s War of Independence. To others those events are ancient history and have no immediate meaning.
To some, the increase in anti-Semitism in Europe is the critical Jewish issue of the day. Perhaps the civil rights movement played a role in someone else’s Jewish identity. I am told that for many in the younger generation the concept of belonging to a formal Jewish community seems antiquated or exclusionary. Yet there are those in that same generation who went on a Birthright trip to Israel or spent time at a Jewish summer camp. Those experiences made a difference in their Jewish identity.
A good question to stimulate discussion at your seder table would be to ask each participant: “What were the most significant and formative Jewish experiences of your life?” or “What does being Jewish mean to you?”
We could learn that there are many different journeys into the Jewish community or that some journeys leave others feeling indifferent or excluded. The seder can be a time to explore each of those unique paths.