Reflections of a Parent-Educator and Amateur Egyptologist on Seder Night
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.
Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.