Unveiling Wisdom: Lessons from the Seder on Passing Down Values to Our Children

Wrong Versus Right Street Sign
Wrong Versus Right Street Sign

There is only one true guarantee in life: it always ends in death — an inescapable fact, constantly lurking somewhere in our consciousness. This awareness fuels a desire to leave something on Earth when we are gone, a powerful force driving many of our life decisions, consciously and subconsciously.  There are many ways we navigate this drive, one of which is having children.  When someone is blessed with children, the finality of death seems less absolute. When someone is blessed with children who carry on their values, the finality of death diminishes even further.  We feel comforted with the feeling that we are leaving a part of ourselves behind, both physically and spiritually. Yet the question remains: how do we effectively transmit our values to our children? How do we ensure our children will maintain the beliefs we hold dear?

Research has consistently shown a correlation between specific family behaviors and the probability of children upholding their parents’ values. The first step in passing down values is for the parent to recognize and define the values that are most meaningful to them. Surprisingly, even within communities of similar religious observance, values that parents want their children to maintain can vary greatly across a spectrum. The next step, after defining the values that are most dear to them, is for the parent to make sure they are modeling these values—and practicing what they preach. Children learn what’s important to adults not by what the adults say, but by what the adults do and by what the adults pay attention to. Modeling is a sure way for children to learn what is important to their parents. In addition, what parents choose to notice in their child’s behavior also clues their children into what their parents value.

Next, research has shown that parents who are more emotionally connected to their children exert a stronger influence on their children’s religious lives. In other words, parents who develop strong relationships with their children have a much more powerful influence on their children’s decisions relating to values. Preserving, deepening, and respecting the parent-child relationship is at the heart of trying to pass on faith and values. Children want to follow adults they love and respect, not adults they fear. On the flip side, research has also shown that coercion and force cannot “make” a child adopt their parents’ values. Coercion and force lose their power as soon as the child begins to experience independence and can ironically create a distaste for the very values the parents want their children to hold dear.

Finally, engaging a child in discussions about values and moral decisions on a regular basis has a powerful influence on what a child retains. When questions are encouraged, and a child’s desire to understand and make the values their own is respected, the child can incorporate the values of their parents on a much deeper level.

So what does all of this have to do with Pesach? For a few thousand years, we have used the seder to educate the next generation—where we come from, what our mission is, and why this mission is so important to maintain. The setup of the seder gives us a great roadmap for how to pass down values.

To begin with, the seder is primarily about modeling behavior that our children observe and imitate. On a deeper level, the seder gives even more sophisticated lessons in how to pass on values.  The seder is interactive and is intended to be a response to the questions children will ask.

Rav Hirsh points out that Pesach is where the Torah delineates the mission of Jewish education. The seder serves as our manual for imparting our values. “Not through unthinking habit, nor through mere moralizing, should our children be led to faithfully observe the Torah’s commandments; those methods will not suffice.  Rather, we must show them the way by our own enthusiastic example, and at the same time awaken their hearts and minds by explaining to them what it is we are doing, so that they learn to practice the mitzvot with intelligence and awareness, and come excited about and fascinated by the task of Judaism.” (Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Exodus 13:8).

How do we convey our values to our children during the seder?


Exodus 12:24-27

(24) “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. (25) And when you enter the land that the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. (26) And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ (27) you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” The people then bowed low in homage.


שמות י״ב:כ״ד-כ״ז

(כד) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה לְחָק־לְךָ֥ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ (כה) וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֧ן ה’ לָכֶ֖ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֵּ֑ר וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ (כו) וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃ (כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽה’ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃



Exodus 13:14

(14) And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the LORD brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.


שמות י״ג:י״ד

(יד) וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֣ר מַה־זֹּ֑את וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֗ד הוֹצִיאָ֧נוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃



Deuteronomy 6:20-21

(20) When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the LORD our God has enjoined upon you?” (21) you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the LORD freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.


דברים ו׳:כ׳-כ״א

(כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה ה’ אֱלֹקֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם׃ (כא) וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֛ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵ֧נוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה׃



Exodus 13:8

(8) And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.’


שמות י״ג:ח׳

(ח) וְהִגַּדְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּעֲב֣וּר זֶ֗ה עָשָׂ֤ה ה’ לִ֔י בְּצֵאתִ֖י מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃


These four passages have become famous for their quotes in the Haggadah, each correlating with a different type of child: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. The sages explain that the Torah does NOT tell us one way to explain our values to our children—it gives us four different ways—in response to four different types of questions. We may think that our values are clear and objective, and to educate our children, we must tell them our values and expect them to comply- especially, during that one night of the year where we have the most direct command to teach our children, the night when we are given the quintessential task of educating our children with the core values of our religion. But that’s not what our sages say! The sages make it clear that we share our values by responding when our children ask and by responding to the way they ask. Even more so, the sages make it clear that we should be encouraging our children to ask questions. Because we pass down our values, we educate our children, NOT with authoritarian forcefulness but by getting our children to question, to search, and then to seek answers.

The seder makes a clear point in telling us about the four sons—about understanding the differences, about responding according to these differences. Education isn’t about deciding what you want to teach and then forcing it on an audience. It’s about learning who your audience is and then responding to what they are seeking, what they need.

When there is something so valuable to us that we want to impart it to our children, it’s natural to want to enforce it with an authoritarian approach. The more we want to make sure our children internalize a value, the more forcefully our instincts seem to tell us to enforce it. But the message of the seder is so powerful and so different. When there is a lesson that we want to impart to our children, it’s ineffective to force, command, or preach. Rather, it’s most effective to: Individualize. Understand. Encourage. Educate. Share. Show.  And CONNECT!

About the Author
Rochelle Garfield is a speech/language pathologist, photographer and dyslexia lecturer. When she has free time, she enjoys running and inline skating. She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and six awesome kids. She is the author of the award winning novel, OUT OF THE SHADOW.
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