Reflections of a Parent-Educator and Amateur Egyptologist on Seder Night

brick-making

Drawing of brick-making from Tomb of Rekhmire. Click image for a presentation with additional images relevant to the Exodus.

by Yossi Prager

At its heart, the seder is a vehicle for telling our children and grandchildren the story of the Jews’ enslavement in and miraculous Exodus from Egypt. For all the importance of Jewish schooling, the Torah views parents as the most important educators in their children’s lives – every day and especially on seder night. I am writing not as a foundation leader but as a parent-educator to share some highlights of my family’s seder. I will be grateful if you use the comments section to share innovations that have enhanced your own seder celebrations.

The educational goal of seder night is articulated within the Haggadah: “In every generation, each person is obligated to feel as if s/he has personally has experienced the Exodus.” What tools does the seder give us as parents and seder hosts to transport participants to the original Pesach night? A text that elaborates on the misery of our enslavement and the wonder of the miracles that set us free; dramatic “props” such as matzah, maror, wine and charoset that help us experience gastronomically both slavery and freedom; songs to ignite the soul; and an educational approach that invites engagement by celebrating participants’ questions.

Here are some additional ways in which my family attempts to shape the seder environment and experience to transport participants back to the first seder some 3,500 years ago.

  • Transforming the dining room. The arch into the room has blood of the Paschal Lamb sprinkled on it (OK, really tomato paste on a long roll of paper taped to the arch). The walls contain photos of artifacts from Egypt, some that show the splendor of the Egyptian empire – one of my kids’ favorites is the statue of King Hatshepsut, a female Pharaoh – and some that more directly relate to the night’s story. For example, drawings from Egyptian tombs show bricks being made, masters beating slaves and the chariots of Pharaoh. My favorite is the Merneptah Stele, the only ancient Egyptian source that specifically mentions the people of Israel. Ironically, the engraved stone reports that Israel has been wiped out; “it has no more seed.” My children – my seed – get a kick out of that one. For the younger children, I also put up some clip art related to Pesach that I printed from chinuch.org. Our tablecloth fabric is filled with hieroglyphics, and usually the children create place cards in hieroglyphics.
  • Challenging participants to put themselves in the place of those leaving Egypt through interactive activities. In recent years, I have ordered some blank papyrus pages from Egypt (via eBay) and distributed them in advance, asking all seder participants to draw a scene that they “remember” from either their slavery in or their exodus from Egypt. These papyri also grace our dining room walls. The assignment gives children of all ages the opportunity to use their imagination, draw about and then teach others at the seder an aspect of the story, perhaps based on a midrash that they find meaningful. Toward a similar end, each participant in the seder is asked to bring two items that they took with them out of Egypt. Before the seder, all the items are loaded into a pillow case. At various points throughout the seder, we take turns pulling items from the pillowcase. Each person removes an item and guesses who put it in and why. The person who put the item in then explains her own thinking.
  • Using Knowledge of Ancient Egypt to Deepen Understanding. Children think of frogs as cute, and we have a plethora of stuffed and plastic frogs on our table, but why in the world did God choose to visit the Egyptians with frogs? It turns out that the Egyptians had a female frog god named Heqet, associated with fertility and midwives. The irony is evident, as Tikvah Weiner, a Jewish educator and educational leader at The Frisch School, notes in her powerpoint presentation (below) on the Ten Plagues. The Egyptians tried to end Jewish fertility and were defeated by the courage of the Jewish midwives. In return, the Egyptians received a destructive outpouring of the frogs that symbolize the fertility they believed that Heqet controlled.Since much of the seder story is intended to showcase the Almighty’s ability to crush the Egyptian deities (including Pharaoh, who saw himself as a god), we have a five-foot poster of King Tut on the dining room wall. As we recite the Ten Plagues and understand the meaning of each one, we slowly cover over King Tut with velcroed pages that describe the plagues. By the end of the ten plagues, we have visually erased the magnificence of King Tut with the power of God’s plagues.

I could say more about our seder and am happy to link to a presentation by a friend (who prefers anonymity) from which I drew some of my dining room decorations. But I want to return to the larger point: Judaism always viewed parents as the primary educators of their children. Yeshivot and day schools were introduced “only” 2,000 years ago, when it became clear that not every child could get the necessary education from the home. Seder is a night when we take back our role as parent-educators.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the Passover seder as the “oldest, continuously observed religious ritual in the world.” It is spine-tingling to realize that the Jewish people – we – are the source of the world’s longest-running religious practice, which celebrates another of our contributions to world history: the concept of political freedom. However, Rabbi Sacks’ word “ritual” can set us off-track. As parent-educators, we have the ability to help our children and guests experience the Exodus not as a long-ago, dead event but as a fun and living framework for our own lives and place within the Jewish people.

Chag Same’ach!

Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

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Comments

  1. Daniel Brenner says:

    Wonderful suggestions Yossi.

    You write: “I will be grateful if you use the comments section to share innovations that have enhanced your own seder.”

    So here’s mine:

    I’ve instituted a mock economic system into my seder. Participants receive a coin (represented by poker chips) from the seder leader for every good comment or question that they make about the rituals. When participants accumulate five coins, they can purchase a “slave” – the rights to have others at the seder work for them to retrieve water, wine, food, etc. Once a participant has ten coins, that person has a choice to redeem one of these slaves (or buy two of their own.) People can also join together to redeem a slave. The results? First off, hilarity ensues. Second, it is a great dynamic for everyone in terms of feeling enslaved, witnessing the corruption of power, experiencing liberation – it brought in an element of psycho-drama that made a lasting impression. I’m into my third year with this game based model of seder-ing and I hope to make it a “chazakah.”

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Yussi, and for sharing the wonderful things you do to engage your family in the seder’s activities. Here are some more ideas from my sister Smadar Goldstein, also an educator and founder of JETS (Jewish Ed Tech Solutions): She fills her bathtub with water and then pours red food coloring into it to mimic the plague of blood. She also sprinkles, sometimes douses the kids (I guess depending on how much complaining they’ve done about the lack of food in the house before Pesach!) with water as the family “crosses Yam Suf.” Setting up tents in the living room to mimic B’nai Yisrael’s encampment in the midbar and hitting her and her husband with scallions are additional activities Smadar’s children get to engage in as they enact the Exodus.

    I have to admit my own sedarim have been more sedate. Last year, I enjoyed reading to my kids the amusing commentary of Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, who contributed to Jonathan Safran Foer’s _The New American Haggadah_. This year, I’m having my art history students explore illuminated haggadot manuscripts from the Middle Ages to today. The assignment will show them visually, as they see the different domestic settings and clothing and artistic styles, the long history of the seder and the multitude of conditions in which we’ve conducted it. In addition, when I took my art history students to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we saw Roman chaises in the Greek and Roman gallery, and the students were able to appreciate the custom of reclining in a way they never had before.

    When I think of the seder, it always strikes me that, long before Howard Gardner, Judaism recognized that all learners are different and engage with text and their tradition in different ways. We’ve used that awareness to create a lifelong love of learning that has ensured the continuity of our people through even the most difficult of times. Now that we have the rich resource of the Internet, we’re finding new ways to enrich our own families’ experiences by exploring how other families connect to the Pesach story.

    Of course, this is one of my favorite ways to use technology to enjoy Pesach:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIxToZmJwdI

    Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

  3. Yossi Prager says:

    I really appreciate the ideas that Daniel and Tikvah shared. I’m always appreciative to have educational innovations to add to my seder. Thanks!

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