I'VE GOT A QUESTION
Rabbi David Walk
Dr. Judy Willis, a specialist in radical education, wrote on Psychologytoday.com: Getting into another's brain is like getting into an exclusive night club, where only the glamorous few are selected. Hmm. There are many times in my 43 years of teaching when I felt entering some kid's brains was more like slumming. But let's give Dr. Willis a chance. She claims that there are really two steps to getting invited into a young person's brain. The first is probably the more important but isn't going to my focus, and that is that the students must not feel threatened by the material or the environment. Let's accept that as a given and go on to step two. Novelty! The students invite in creativity in venue, sounds, material. Variety and the unusual make them curiouser and curiouser. Want an invitation into the brains of the participants at your Seder? Do something different and unexpected.
Probably some of you are thinking: Hey, who said that I'm an educator? Who made me a teacher? Well, uh, the Torah did. You know how the Seder is brought to you by the number 4? Rabbis spend a lot of time trying to figure out why four is so prevalent at this ceremony. Some say there are four terms of redemption or the term cup is used four times in the story of Joseph and the butler. I think it's because the mitzva of presenting the story is stated four times in the Torah. 1. And it will come to pass when your children say to you, 'What is this service to you?' (Shmot 12:26), 2. And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'Because of this, the Lord did this for me when I went out of Egypt.' (13:8), 3. And it will come to pass when your child asks you in the future, saying, 'What is this?' you shall respond, 'With a mighty hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage' (13:14), 4. When your child asks you in time to come, saying, 'What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?' You shall say to your child, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand' (Devarim 6:20-21). Sounds like we're expected to teach our kids and any other participants at our Seder.
The pedagogic requirements get even stronger when we look at the Mishneh (Tractate Pesachim 10:2): According to the da'at of the child, the parent must teach. What does the Mishneh mean by da'at? Many of you know the famous threesome of Jewish epistemology: chachma, bina, da'at. Which we normally translate as: wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Da'at is the highest of the three and could mean experience, expertise or cognitive ability. In other words, the parent is required to engage the child at the highest level of interest or intellectual attainment. Good luck. Remember, the average Jewish child is a genius.
It doesn't have to be that hard, if you prepare just a little bit. Nowadays there are so many resources available to us for preparing material for the Seder that it's much easier than it's ever been. There are hundreds of Hagadot in English, and many of them are written with advice on how to run a Seder. Plus, there are tons of websites with great ideas about how to present a Seder. It's never been so easy to find ideas and advice on how to present an amazing Seder.
So, without further ado, here's my advice for running a Seder which encourages an invitation into the minds of your participants. Discuss the number 4. This is critical because it's my lucky number (I was born on the Fourth of July, but after 1776), and Torah Tidbits has been putting my articles on page 44. 4 is an unusual number to be used in Judaism. We are usually afraid of even numbers, because they encourage strife. Odd numbers allow for decision making and tie breakers. The Talmud (Pesachim 109b) asks if it's dangerous to decree 4 cups of wine and concludes that the Seder night is leil shimurim a special protected evening (Shmot 12:42). I'd like to suggest the Sages liked the fact that the discussions might be open ended, and never arrive at definitive conclusions.
As we said before, the number four is connected to four aspects of teaching the story, maybe kinds of students, but maybe it also informs us that there are 4 lessons or teachable ideas of the night. When we finally get around to the text used to teach the story, it's four verses from the declaration made by farmers when they brought their first fruits (Devarim 26:5-8). Could those 4 verses be the four concepts of the experience? Verse one: An Aramean sought to destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. That's miraculous. We are the only people in history to become a nation while in exile. Verse two: The Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. No surprise here; Jewish history is often about persecution and attempted genocide. Verse three: So we cried out to the Lord, Who heard our voice and saw our affliction, toil, and oppression. Our salvation requires our direct petition to God. Verse four: The Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. Last idea, Jewish history is all about Divine intervention and inexplicable endings.
These are the four ideas of the Hagada. Our job is to expand upon them and see them at work in the Egypt story. Then we must apply them to the sweep of Jewish history. Eventually, we should feel them at work in our own time, as we continue Judaism's Improbable History.