**Note: the blog post is PG. The video clip is not.

As Jonah (11) and I were driving to school this morning, we came up with an idea for the seder that I thought was a good one to share. One kids activity I’ve seen in various haggadot is to invite children to interview the grownups about the Exodus, as though they were news reporters covering the event. Given the preponderance of sports media in our home, Jonah and I played with the idea of making it specifically a sports interview (with the requisite sports interview answers by athletes). For example:

REPORTER: Moses, you’ve just won the Ten Plagues contest! How does it feel?

MOSES: Well Al, it feels really special, of course. I mean, we’ve been working at this for a long time, and to see this moment come true–well, it’s just something we’re going to remember for years and years, I’m sure. I imagine my grandkids–heck, maybe even their grandkids–will be talking about this one.

REPORTER: This was really an amazing victory. Tell me about your game plan taking on the Egyptians.

MOSES: Well, you know, we just wanted to stick with what got us here, you know? Focus on the fundamentals, work together as a team, believe in each other. The Egyptians are an amazing squad, with a really oppressive defense. We just had to be patient, take the opportunities when they came our way. And, you know, have faith.

REPORTER: In the first half, it looked like you might get an early victory. What happened after the fifth plague?

MOSES: Well, it was definitely looking good those first few plagues. I mean, after the blood and the frogs, we figured Pharaoh was ready to cave. But, as I said, they’re a tenacious bunch, and it seems like they just really stiffened their resolve and bore down on their game plan even more. So we knew we were in for a long struggle.

REPORTER: Let’s talk about that tenth plague. Take us inside your thought process on that one.

MOSES: Well, you know, that was the scariest of the whole bunch. I mean, we felt like we just had to huddle up and let the Good Lord do the work. We established good protection for our team, and then the play just took its course. I wouldn’t exactly call it a Hail Mary or anything, but… It was a real test of our resolve.

REPORTER: So you’ve got this championship under your belt. What’s the next step?

MOSES: Well, Al, we just want to take it one step at a time. There are still more majors to win: the Sinai championships are coming up, and after that the Canaan marathon. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But I just think, with this team, anything is possible. And at the end of the day, I just really want to say that I thank God–I mean, God was really on our side in this one.

REPORTER: Thanks Moses, and congratulations again on the championship. Best of luck to you and the Israelites.

MOSES: Thanks Al.

REPORTER: Moses, on winning the Ten Plagues championship over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. An instant classic, isn’t it Heather? Back to you in the studio.

Originally published at the Huffington Post.

I am a rabbi. When I tell people that I lead a program called Ask Big Questions, many of them respond something like this: “Oh, that makes so much sense. Judaism is all about asking questions!” Jews are a people who love questions, who are characterized by questions, who “answer a question with a question.” Or so we tell ourselves.

At Passover we encounter this line of thinking a lot. The Haggadah’s Four Questions, its question-and-answer of the Four Sons, the Talmud’s instruction that if one is having a seder alone, one must still ask oneself, What makes this night different? – all of these elaborate on the basic theme of Judaism’s love of questions. In his outstanding Haggadah, Rabbi Mishael Zion quotes Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who puts the sentiment beautifully: “Autocrats hate questions. We train children at the Passover Seder to ask why, because tyrants are undone and liberty is won with a good question. It is for this reason that God loves it when we ask why.”

But the Jewish People has no monopoly on questions. The most famous questioner in history was Socrates. The great philosophers, artists, writers, and political leaders who have asked powerful questions are, by and large, not Jews. Yes, Talmudic reasoning is animated by question-and-answer, but so are most quality intellectual traditions. So to say that asking questions is an inherently Jewish activity isn’t true. Jews may revel in questions more than some others, but the act of questioning belongs to all human beings.

Nevertheless, there is no disputing that the Seder is a night of questions. It is a night for discovery of the new. But it is also a night for rediscovery of what we already know. Questions become gateways to new reading, to new understanding, to “modes whereby to discover, interminably, new relationships or subtle correspondences, beauty kept secret or hidden intentions,” in the words of French philosopher (and Jew) Vladimir Jankelevitch. The questions of the Seder express the rebirth and renewal of the spring, the Jewish people’s season of redemption.

But not all questions lead to this kind of experience. There are different types of questions, and there are different ways to use questions. Questions can lead to connection and learning, but they can also lead to disconnection and disintegration. Questions can be used to build up, but they can also be used to destroy. All questions are not created equal.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great Torah scholars of the twentieth century, elaborated on this theme in explaining the answer prescribed for the Wicked Son in the Haggadah. The Haggadah reads:

The Wicked Son, what does he ask? ‘What does this ritual mean to you?’ To you, and not to him. By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, blunt his teeth and say to him: ‘It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt’; for me, but not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Among the striking elements of this passage is the fact that in the previous paragraph, the Haggadah tells us that the Wise Son also asks a question in the second person: “What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” Like the Wicked Son, the Wise Son refers to “you,” and not to “us.” So why does the Haggadah come down so hard on the Wicked Son?

Rav Hutner comments that the issue here is the Wicked Son’s stance in asking his question. “The Wicked Son does not contribute to fulfilling the commandment to discuss the Exodus through question-and-answer,” he writes in his work, the Pachad Yizchak. “Only a question genuinely asked as a question contributes to fulfillment of the commandment.” The spirit, the tone, the emotion behind, surrounding, and within a question, matters just as much as the words of the question itself.

This is one of the most important insights of the Seder into the dynamic of questions: Questions don’t exist independent of a questioner. A question must be asked in order to exist. And thus a question implies a relationship, a stance of the questioner to the one to whom the question is asked. Yes, as Steven Greenberg reminds us, questions can be sources of instability, harbingers of revolution. But questions, when asked genuinely and coupled with real listening, are also seed-bearers of conversation and mutual understanding, of empathy and community.

The Wicked Son is the person who uses his question as a weapon, who is not interested in listening. He is there to remind us, through a negative example, of the amazing potential of questions.

The Seder is a night of questions. But more than this, the Seder is a night of questions and stories. It is a night of renewing relationships—to one another, to ourselves, to our tradition, to God. The Seder calls us to ask our questions with generosity. It demands of us to take our questions seriously, not only as an intellectual or rhetorical exercise, but with our whole self.

So when we say that the Jewish people are a people of questions, and that Passover is a holiday of questions and questioning, let’s delve a little deeper into what we mean. The great questions—the Big Questions—of Jewish tradition are ones that invite us into an eternal conversation. They are questions asked by everyone in every generation, questions that matter to everyone and that everyone can and must answer. In asking those questions, in having those conversations, we renew our lives and our commitments. That is what we aim for in the questions of the Seder.

Hallel, the collection of psalms we recite on holidays, begins with Psalm 113. The psalm opens with some expected praises of God (this is Hallel, after all), and ultimately makes its way to this particular formulation (vv. 7-9):

He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

He seats them with princes, with the princes of his people;

He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.

The narrative suggested by the Psalm is that of the Exodus: the lowly Israelites are taken from the lowest point (slavery) and brought to the highest point (becoming God’s people at Sinai). This is a normative traditional understanding of the Psalm, and would seem to be a key factor in its placement at the start of Hallel, since Hallel is recited at the seder, and the recitation of Hallel is rooted in the experience of the liberation from Egypt. In fact, this particular Psalm is recited as part of the Maggid section of the Seder–it precedes the meal–and is therefore understood to be the culmination of the Rabbis’ instruction to “begin in lowliness and conclude in praise” (Pesachim 116a).

Yet there’s something very interesting in the formulation of these verses. Verse 7 makes sense: raising the poor, lifting the needy. But what about verse 8: What does the psalmist mean in saying that the poor is seated not only with princes, but with the princes of his people? This would imply that there were already princes among them. It could therefore refer to Moses (though he was a prince among the Egyptians). It could refer to the first-born or the elders among the Israelites.

In his Haggadah, Rabbi David Silber points to a more likely possibility. The word translated here as “prince” is the Hebrew term nadiv. This word suggests not so much the office or status of a noble, but rather the characteristic of nobility. It is linked to the term for generosity: nedavah (a free-will offering), or nediv-lev (one whose heart moves him to contribute).  Here the idea of nobility is bound up with what noble people do: they’re generous. It is not about station, but about behavior and character.

Thus to be “seated with the princes of his people” is perhaps a broader suggestion. Rabbi Silber points us to the first use of the term in the Torah, which comes at the beginning of this week’s parasha (Ex. 25:2): “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give,” kol ish asher yidvenu-libo. After Revelation, God creates the possibility for every Israelite to be generous through the joint project of building the Mishkan. Everyone can give. And in giving, everyone can be a person who gives–a nadiv, a noble.

There’s an important message here about collective belonging, one that can inform all of our group experiences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book The Home We Build Together, “A nation is built by building.” So are communities, companies, congregations, sports teams, and families. But there’s also an important message about the Exodus: the culmination of the Exodus is not the crossing of the sea, and not even the revelation of the Torah. The culmination of the Exodus is in the building of the Mishkan, in the empowerment of the powerless to be noble, to be generous, to contribute. That is why we sing Psalm 113 before our meal at the Seder, and it is why the last 15 chapters of the book of Exodus are devoted to the story of the Mishkan.

Shabbat shalom.

 

My business these days is questions. Big Questions, to be precise. At Ask Big Questions, we define a Big Question by two criteria: a) Everyone can answer it; b) It matters to everyone. We also say that because of these two criteria, Big Questions usually lead to sharing stories, rather than making statements.

Some folks like to claim that Ask Big Questions is inherently Jewish because “asking questions is Jewish.” And to this I usually respond, yes and no. Yes, Jewish intellectual tradition, and particularly the Talmud, is notorious for asking questions. But also no: after all, Socrates is probably the most famous question-asker in history.

There’s nothing inherently Jewish about asking questions. Human beings ask questions. But Jews have built a religious community out of asking questions. And in Parshat Bo, we find the seeds of perhaps the greatest institution in our religious tradition, the Passover seder.

When you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’” (Ex. 12:25-27)

The Passover seder is built on questions, questions that lead to stories. The mitzvah of the night is sipur yetziat mitzrayim, to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And yet the story is not prescribed. Rather, in the words of Rabban Gamaliel, “in every generation each person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he had personally left Egypt.” The story of Passover is to be told and retold, recreated anew every time by every person. The role of the question in this story-oriented view of the seder is to open up space, to usher the individual into an imaginative world in which their own story meets up with, partakes of, and contributes to the story of the Jewish people. Questioning here leads to identification, identity, continuity.

Yet this is a different understanding of what questions can do than we often think of. In much traditional modern discourse, the power of questions lies not in their potential for continuity, but in the fact that they cause discontinuity. In this line of thinking, to question is to not accept things as they are. It is the beginning of doubt. This is the kind of questioning we associate with the phrase, “Question authority.”

Interestingly, both of these forms of questioning are associated with the idea of freedom. In the latter, questioning leads to freedom from, or negative liberty. In the former, questioning leads to freedom for, or positive liberty. Not all questions are equal, just as not all types of freedom are the same. The power of question to unite or divide depends on its content and context.

The midrash Mechilta reads the verse we quoted above as follows: “At that moment, bad news was brought to the Israelites: that the Torah would be forgotten. Some say that good news was brought to them: that they would have children and children’s children!” (Mechilta Bo 12) As Avivah Zornberg writes on this passage, “The bittersweet nature of questions has to do with forgetting and the desire to know. Without forgetting, there would be no questions. Is this – the inevitability of forgetting – bad news? Or is it good news, implying the constant rebirth of narratives, responses to the questions of those in whom distance and forgetting create desire? The issue is not decided, as so many true questions are not decided” (The Particulars of Rapture, 181).

What does it mean to be free? Is it freedom to control our own destiny? Is it freedom to be able to wholly commit ourselves to something larger? How do we answer these questions for ourselves, and how do we answer them for our children while also allowing them to find their own answers? These are the Big Questions of education, of the seder, and of life.

Shabbat shalom.

 

The main theme for my approach to Passover this year is that of opening. Think of the number of times we make openings at the seder: We open the door to welcome our guests, to proclaim ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat,’ and again to welcome Elijah the Prophet. We break open the middle matzah as we begin the Maggid section of the seder, symbolizing our opening up the story and opening ourselves to it and to one another.

The French rabbi-philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin explores this theme in his Haggadah. In his final comment, on opening the door for Elijah, Ouaknin quotes the story in which Elijah goes alone to a cave on Mount Horev in the desert. God brings a great wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—but God was not in any of these. Instead, after the fire, he finds God in ‘a still, small voice.’ (1 Kings 19:11-13) Ouaknin comments:

One must have sharpened one’s hearing, to be led to the absolute level of attention, to become capable of perceiving such a tenuous breath. One must have sounded oneself, have explored oneself in the darkest places of consciousness, to the furthest of thoughts, to have made the circuit of one’s inner domain many times, in constantly growing but nevertheless tightening circles, so as to attain the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness, to be able to be stroked lightly, touched, visited by such an inaudible sigh.

The point of concluding the seder with opening the door for Elijah is to signify that this journey in ‘the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness’ is the ultimate intention of the seder. While we aim to find ourselves on seder night, to reconnect with the story of our people and see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, remembering who we are paradoxically requires losing ourselves at the same time.

This paradox is physically enacted in opening the door of our home. Think of the security, the faith, it takes to open the door late at night, or to go to sleep with it unlocked, as is the custom on this ‘Night of Watching,’ this leil shimurim. By doing so to welcome the mysterious Elijah, we demonstrate a confidence in ourselves that empowers us to make ourselves vulnerable. We enact the definition of home propounded by my own Hillel rabbi in college, Jim Ponet: Home is the place we can welcome guests. In opening our doors at Pesach, we show that we are at home.

In The Dignity of Difference, his groundbreaking exploration of globalization and religious identity, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain imagines what faith in a globalized world could look like:

It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours… It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to mankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. (pp. 65-66)

This is the paradox of Pesach, the paradox of opening the door. Passover is our people’s most nationalistic holiday. At the same time, in order to connect with our identity as Jews, in order to be at home, we have to open ourselves—to the Haggadah, to one another, to guests, to the world.

Chag sameach. My sincere wishes for a joyous, meaningful, and liberating Pesach.

Here’s a bunch of great ideas for Passover seders (the last Greek symposium in the world!), collected from various listservs I’m a part of:

Seder Leader Guide (for use with ‘A Different Night’ Haggadah, compact edition)

New Midrash: Worlde, Google Image Search, Texts
Take the text from Deuteronomy 26:5-8 and put it into http://www.wordle.net to create a variety of visual art forms. Also, ask guests to take a word or phrase (”outstretched arm,” “hard labor”, etc.) and do a Google image search. Have them print out pictures or photos that speak to them, and bring them to the seder. You can create a “midrash art museum” where each person shares what they found meaningful or insightful in the image. You can also ask them to bring a text (you can use Google to find it) that is meaningful to them.

Bring an Object for the Seder Plate
Last year, we asked our guests to “bring a (small) object that is not normally found on the seder table but you think might belong there for some reason.  The object could have something to do with freedom, oppression, simplicity, the desert, Egypt, Israel, hope for a better world or anything else you think is important to bring into our pesach celebration.  Each individual could bring an object or if you want to bring something as a couple or a family, that’s fine too.  The only other guidelines are that it should be relatively small and not be chametz.”

We put the objects on a “second” seder plate and left it in the middle of the table until after the initial elements of magid (I think we did the 4 questions and avadim hayinu).  Then we passed the plate around the table and asked each guest (or family or couple depending) to take an object they hadn’t brought, then after a minute or two for couples or families to consult, we went around the table explaining why each item was there.  First whoever was holding the object offered an explanation, then whoever brought it.  Some explanations were strikingly similar, while others were very different.  Then we picked the haggada back up, skipping a lot of magid.  I think we may have told the story to the kids in a relatively simple form as well.  Everyone said what a great seder it was and really enjoyed it.

Seder Bingo or Taboo
I’ve done “seder bingo” where you hand out blank bingo boards, have everyone fill in the boards with words they think will be mentioned first, etc. I’ve also created “Passover Taboo” where you make your own versions of taboo cards but with Passover related lingo (ie “Charleton Heston,” words you can’t say: NRA, 10 Commandments, etc. Or “Bondage” words you can’t say “house of, James Bond, etc.” of course you can also do more legit words like nile, pharoah, plagues, etc.).

Other Games
A fun game that we play at our seder that the kids all LOVE is the kids go around the house and collect random objects in a bag (as many objects as there are people at the seder) — things as random as dolls, books, items of clothing, or whatever.  Then the bag gets passed around the seder table –  each person picks out one object and has to relate it somehow to the Exodus story (e.g. an animal could be one of the plagues, a hat could be what the Jews had to wear in the desert because it was so hot, etc.)  Even people who are reluctant to act things out or dress up can participate in this one. [Dina clarified for me that they do this game with the bag at a set point; her family inserts games whenever the kids seem to be drifting or when we finish a section with a lot of long reading and no singing.]

Tell Your Family’s Exodus Story
His parents told their family’s exodus stories (e.g. leaving Russia after the pogroms etc) as part of the seder.  (Danny Greene by way of Becky Voorwinde)

Pick a Theme and Send out Questions in Advance
My father-in-law puts together a wonderful seder each year. Aside from the texts that he culls together, he also comes up with a theme each year that he sends around to all participants a few years in advance.

Past themes have included things like: “What does freedom mean to you?”, “What types of renewal do you see for yourself this year?”; and the less pesach-dick, but very moving: “What does your name mean to you?”

Then, all guests from the smallest to the oldest participate with their answers throughout the seder. It has always been very moving…as well as sometimes funny.

Plagues Bags
Buy one online (www.plaguesbag.com) or make your own

Question, Comment and Story Cards
Print out slips of paper that say “Question” “Comment” and “Story”. Each guest gets one at the beginning of the seder (or just at their place). Explain that everyone has to use up their slips by the end of the seder. I have found this the most effective possible way of encouraging participation, without forcing it for any one person at any time.

Suggested Hagadot

· The Women’s Passover Companion: Women’s Reflections on the Festival of Freedom by Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, Catherine Spector, and Paula E. Hyman

· The Women’s Seder Sourcebook: Rituals and Readings for Use at the Passover Seder by by Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector

· A Night of Questions by Joy Levitt; Michael Strassfeld and Jeffrey Schrier From the Reconstructionist Movement (comes with a music CD)

· WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER NIGHTS by Ilana Kurshan, a fun seder companion that translates the Ma Nishtana into 23 languages, all transliterated so that you can recite them at your Seder.

· A Night to Remember by Mishael Zion, Noam Zion, Michel Kichka

· The Lovell Haggadah by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz

· A Different Night by Noam Zion, David Dishon

Online Tools:

  • http://www.jewishfreeware.org where Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner has provided material to download and create your own haggadah precisely tailored to your family, school, shul, etc. The biggest problem is that you’ll wish you had more than two weeks to go through all of it.

As many of my readers know, I moonlight as a graduate student at Northwestern in the Religion department. Last quarter I took a course on ritual theory. While initially I didn’t expect it to be highly germane to my overall interest in the development of religion and Jewish life in higher education, I wound up writing a paper analyzing the Martin Luther King Day Vigil at Northwestern as an act of civil religion in the university. In the course of my work I learned much about various theoretical approaches to ritual from anthropology, psychology, sociology and religious studies. (A good book to read, if one is interested in a primer is Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions.)

The reason I mention this is that in both the Torah reading this week (Tzav: Leviticus 6-8) and in the Passover seder we will perform next week, ritual plays a central role. Tzav details the way in which certain sacrifices are to be performed, and documents the elaborate initiation ritual for Aaron and his sons. In case one loses interest in reading these dense parts of Leviticus, remember that all of the clothing, motions, gestures, language and sacrifices have significance in a ritual. Think of it like a play rich in symbolism–which has the effect of pointing us beyond the immediately present to a world of additional meanings. When we read a ritual this way, we can ask questions like, “What is the significance of putting blood on the right ear of Aaron and his sons?” or “Why are they not allowed to leave the Tent of Meeting for seven days?” In the simplest sense, then, seeing an act as a ritual means that we imbue it with meaning. We see it as representing something larger than what it immediately appears to be.

Yet ritual does more than that. According to the influential Jewish theorist Emile Durkheim, ritual enacts the values of a community in action. It attempts to influence the morals and behaviors of individuals by bringing them into a larger frame of reference, a totality larger than themselves. That is certainly the case in the sacrifices and rituals in Tzav, which take place on the grand stage of national drama. But it is equally true for the Passover seder, which takes place on the more intimate yet equally powerful stage of home and dining room.

The seder–as connoted in its very name, which means order–is a paradigmatic home ritual. It aims to bring its participants into a larger narrative: “In every generation one is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt,” says Rabban Gamliel in the Talmud and the Haggadah. We engage in a ritual, an act of theater, with symbolic foods and even a script, all in the attempt to understand our own lives in the context of our larger story, to braid our story with that of the Jewish People throughout time.

Yet the seder, as a particularly educational type of ritual, invites us to improvise and thereby renew the ritual every year. We are told by the Rabbis to create midrash, to come up with our own readings of the story, and to ask questions about it, to interrogate it. The ritual of the seder is thus not meant to be a stifling ritual, one that establishes a fixed meaning for time immemorial, but rather one that engages each and every individual in the question: How is this story my story? In that process, each of us becomes a stakeholder and a writer of Jewish history.

Shabbat shalom.