We have noted in the past that the Chag of Pesach, and the Seder night in particular, contains a tremendous amount of wisdom and insight regarding parenting and chinuch in general. The family-centered character of the Seder is actually built into the evening’s make-up from the outset, stemming from the Torah’s unique mandate to transmit the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim,
לבנך ביום ההוא” והגדת” “and you should tell your son on that day.” We are commanded not simply to commemorate leaving Egypt, but to tell the Exodus story to our children- to pass the narrative on to future generations.
Precisely because of this unique mandate, I have long felt that the Seder night and the Haggadah are structured in a way that helps us accomplish that goal. By delving into certain aspects of the Haggadah’s structure and content, we can glean many wonderful lessons regarding chinuch and parenting in general.
One crucial chinuch lesson can be gleaned from the very way that the Seder night is constructed. The Mishna Pesachim 10:4 describes the encounter between parent on child on the Seder night to be in the form of questions and answers- “at this point, the son asks…and the father teaches him according to his level.” Far from being a one-sided lecture, Chazal view the Seder evening as an interactive one, with the children actively engaged through questioning and the parents fashioning their responses to suit each child’s queries. Specific rituals are performed at the Seder’s beginning “so that the children will ask”. The gemara even concludes that if a couple has no children, they themselves should recite the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim in Q and A form.
Chazal’s decision to design the Seder evening in Q and A form is not coincidental- it is based on the text of the Torah itself. The commandment of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim is rooted in a number of pesukim that each describe a child’s queries concerning a particular action or ritual, “and it will be when your son asks you…”, and the proper answer to be relayed to that child. These pesukim veer from the standard style of the Torah in order to relay the importance of the Q and A dynamic within the parent-child relationship.
Why is there such a focus on questions and answers- both in the Torah, and specifically on the Seder night? The answer appears to be a relatively obvious, yet crucially important, pedagogical lesson – the best way to pass on values and messages to the next generation is though genuine interaction and interface. It is not enough to simply tell a story or relay a message- rather we must actively engage our children in order to create an environment of learning.
In general, in Judaism we have never avoided asking questions. Both our forefather Avraham, and our greatest leader Moshe, repeatedly questioned and challenged G-d. The entire corpus of Talmud, the foundation for our Oral Law, is written in question-and-answer form. Rabbi Normal Lamm, in his Pesach Haggadah, The Royal Table, asserts that “let us never be perturbed by questions. They are the characteristic of an alert and intelligent mind.” Not only that, but genuine questions indicate a sincere and active interest in the learning process, which is crucial for real learning to happen. As a teacher or a parent, there is nothing that we enjoy more than an inquisitive mind, children genuinely asking in order to hear and learn more.
Our ultimate goal on the Seder night, therefore, is to encourage our kids to ask their own questions- and to use those questions as a springboard for relaying the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim in a way that speaks to each child. We therefore do things throughout the evening to spark their interest and curiosity. Rav Kook, in his commentary on the Haggadah, suggests that this goal is the reason for the strange order of the Mah Nishtanah. At first glance, the order of the questions seems strange. If the questions are based on observations the kids have made by watching us at the Seder, the order should be the exact opposite! Of the four questions, the first thing our children saw us do was lean as we drank the 1st cup. That was followed by eating and dipping the karpas. We haven’t even gotten to the maror, or started to eat the matzah. So why does the Mah Nishtanah start by asking about those things?
Rav Kook answers by reminding us that the ultimate goal of the Seder night is to get our kids to ask their own questions. That is the ideal. The Mah Nishtanah itself is actually geared towards the children who don’t ask any questions, the she’eino yodea lish’ol. Nevertheless, since we hope to encourage even that child to ask his own questions, even when we “feed” him questions, we do so in a way that will hopefully spur him to ask his own questions. We therefore start with a question that may have been harder for him to ask on his own- such as the difference between chametz and matzah. Many people eat matzah throughout the year as well, and therefore the distinction between chametz and matzah might be difficult for him to notice. We open with that question to encourage him to then notice other strange things that we are doing. We then ask the remaining questions of the Mah Nishtanah in order of least to most obvious, hoping that during the process, the child will be inspired to ask his own questions.
This brings to light perhaps the biggest challenge of our contemporary Seders- balancing between familiarity and spontaneity. We, and our children, often prepare for the Seder night weeks in advance- and we know the entire Haggadah text by heart. Our younger children learn the Mah Nishtanah by heart, and our older kids prepare divrei Torah in school. While our familiarity with the Haggadah text speaks to the many years of time spent around the Pesach table, that familiarity may also take away from the evening’s main goal- the sincere, spontaneous Q and A between parent and child that is meant to be the backbone of the night. If our Seder night becomes a night of rituals and rote, then it may be meaningful family time, but it will be missing the crucial element meant to serve as its foundation.
It behooves us, therefore, to reintroduce that element back into the evening. We must truly prepare for the Seder – take time to consider each of our children and determine what we can do to engage them in meaningful dialogue and conversation. Through creativity and positive reinforcement, we must find ways to involve our kids in the Seder- not simply to recite the Mah Nishtanah, or to relay a Dvar Torah from their teacher- but to help them become active participants in the discussion. And of course, we should always keep the Seder’s ultimate goal in mind- that we learn to apply these techniques towards engaging and encouraging our kids to ask questions year-round. That is, after all, the best way for us to pass on those values and ideals that we hold dearest.
Wishing everyone a Chag Kasher V’sameach!