If your family is like mine, there’s the divide between those who love a snappy seder — quick, tasty, to the point, and done by midnight — and those who like a long and leisurely evening of games, song, good food, and much discussion.
We have our own set of variables, set into play by our youngest, Akiva, who has disabilities. While Akiva loves seder songs and rituals — indeed he listens to holiday music all year long and is always ready for whatever holiday is “on deck” — navigating a long evening in an unfamiliar setting is always challenging. For us, for his brothers, and most of all, for him.
When he was small, we often hosted two seders at our home in Brooklyn, figuring it was the easiest way to make the evening successful for all. When we moved to Israel, we solved the problem of two seder nights. As his seder skills developed, the challenge became alerting the table to his needs and making the most of his favorite seder moments.
The good news? Making your seder more welcoming is easy. The Haggadah was written with everyone in mind, with a range of texts that encourage tackling bigger issues like exclusion and oppression, freedom and revelation, alongside festive songs, glasses of wine, and endless food.
Slow Down and Smell the Maror. Choose a few moments for a slowdown of your seder’s speed in order to accommodate a range of needs, from those guests who don’t read Hebrew well, or are less familiar with the seder, to those like Akiva who simply sing much more slowly than the average person. Especially if your table is filled with seder regulars, this choice has a way of reminding everyone that inclusion means literally taking time to include everyone into the seder experience.
Ha Lach’ma An’ya. Hospitality and the Seder. We begin the seder with our doors open, inviting in the hungry, the needy, and the enslaved, offering up the matzah as part of our welcome, that “bread of oppression which our Fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” Not exactly an enticing invitation of plenty for someone in need who might prefer a heartier meal but is a message offered freely, and inclusively to all.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his Pesach Haggadah, writes “…What transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others….” Being willing to share and include, is also the first step in creating community buy-in and acceptance of those with disabilities, while freeing ourselves of that very human fear of difference. Breaking matzah together can ease the way towards reducing discomfort – over an evening replete with ice-breaking conversation and group activities.
An inclusive community is reminiscent of those first seders in Egypt — doors open, tables set, bags packed — ready and hopeful for a community adventure all would experience together.
Nuancing the Four Children. Whether it be gender diversity, disability and difference, mental illness, parenting and anger management, the four children are an obvious place to discuss difference. How can we deepen this important conversation?
Rabbi Miriam Spitzer in My Jewish Learning writes, “The Haggadah begins with ‘k’neged arba banim dibra Torah.’ This is usually translated as: ‘The Torah alludes to four children.’ But perhaps it could also be rendered as: ‘The Torah speaks against the notion that there are four children.’”
Intuitively, we know this responds to that larger question of who those children are and what they can represent – their questions, the Haggadah’s answers, and our responses. Rabbi Spitzer notes, “…Too often, our categorizations of children become self-fulfilling prophecies, because of the power of our responses to influence future behavior.”
Thinking beyond categories and labels, and breaking through the disability-label-divide and often uninformed ideas about functioning abilities and disabilities are the steps needed in order to think more openly about all of our community’s children.
Haroset and Wall Building. As evidenced by the pyramids in Egypt, the walls of the Old City, and other ancient walled cities in good repair today, walls are a specialty of the human race. The walls we build between understanding and acceptance in all elements of our lives – private and communal – are exemplified by the Haroset eaten at the Seder table. Take a minute to consider the walls you’ve erected, whether by fear, misperception, or lack of experience, and vow to use your Haroset to build a shared community, free from obstacles that impede the inclusion of those who have not yet succeeded in joining.
Dayenu, or Enough is Enough. The seminal song of the Seder, sung early on in the evening is Dayenu, a “rising crescendo of thanksgiving,” writes Morris Silverman in his edition of the Passover Haggadah, “beginning with gratitude for physical deliverance and ending with gratitude for the spiritual blessings of the Sabbat and the Torah. Freedom is not enough. The Exodus must lead to Sinai.”
If Exodus means freedom, then Sinai, and the receiving of the 10 Commandments, means responsibility. If we are to meaningfully include people with disabilities in all elements of Jewish communal life, we must admit to our fears and misconceptions about difference. We can be honest with ourselves, and say Dayenu.
This piece was first included in the Jewish Speakers Bureau’s “Musings for the Passover Seder 2017”, featuring seder commentary by more than 30 speakers from Avivah Zornberg to Yisrael Campbell; click here and read today.