For Our Students

| Shabbat Hagadol By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Mar 31, 2012 / 5772 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

I got valuable help this year in writing my annual Shabbat Hagadol message to teens and 20-somethings from six teens and 20-somethings who are studying at The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies. “The Torah speaks of four sons,” the Haggadah teaches (“four children” in some recent versions): “one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.” The six students who gathered over sandwiches in my office last week agreed that all of those characteristics are found at times in every one of us, including the rasha whom they understand not as “wicked” or “evil,” but as “rebellious.” My students had lots of good questions about Passover, I found, and many good answers, none of them simple. All six of my discussion partners are already quite wise in the ways of the seder. Think of your seder, and how you might improve it, by listening to what the students have to say about theirs. 

The thing I learned (or relearned) most clearly from my students, I think, is that the meaning of the holiday—what Passover is about for those who participate in the seder—is not freedom or slavery or the precious, hard-won capacity to say you have enough (dayenu). Passover is about family. I do not mean to say, nor did my students, that the themes normally mentioned by commentators seeking to explain the holiday are not important. But from the moment people gather at the table to the recital by the youngest present of the four questions (perhaps proudly, haltingly, and for the first time) to the repeated references to ancestors in Egypt, Bnei Brak, or wherever to the climactic avowal just before the festive meal that God has redeemed not only our ancestors but us too, the Haggadah goes out of its way to bind and rebind each of us in that chain of generations.

The seder is such a powerful ritual, we might say, because it drives home that major theme by seating us around a family table, normally set at home, where family dynamics are on view for all to observe and to join. Students who come home from school for the seder (or adults who come to their parents’ homes for seder, bearing their own children in tow), cannot fail to be struck forcibly by the family drama that frames, animates, and sometimes overshadows the telling of the Passover story.

“It’s a hectic time,” one student sighed, “even more hectic than usual.”

“Passover is the only holiday I go home for. It’s the only holiday my family really observes.”

Another reported that her mother’s family is far less interested in the Haggadah than her father’s. The latter wants to talk. The former wants to eat. One of the male students, giving voice to a sentiment uttered by Jewish women over many centuries, said, “the prospect of clearing out my dorm room and then going home to clean some more is not appealing to me.” Two students mentioned recent deaths of grandparents who had played a prominent role in their seders last year (one of them by doing much of the cooking) and would not be present this year. This led directly to the comment that Passover is fun because there are lots of kids at the seder who have a good time when they get together. 

(How wise of the ritual’s authors, I marveled, to put in place this highly charged context for the telling of the Passover story. The generations gather to celebrate the transmission of redemption from one generation to another. And how amazing that the kids get older and their parents do not.) 

Each of my students seemed to have a different favorite among the seder’s component pieces. One person liked the passage about the four children best, and her family’s custom of trying to figure out who at the table embodies which attributes. (The leader of another seder, a family patriarch, annually assigns the parts of Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Unable to Ask to individuals at the table, along with reasons for his choices!) Another student particularly liked the singing, including Passover parodies of Broadway show tunes composed long ago by an uncle. A third student treasured the fact that his father—who does not recite kiddush at Sabbath meals during the year—insists on chanting it, in Hebrew, at the seder. Another reported fondly that his father says Grace After Meals each Passover with feeling. Someone else cited the pleasure of Haroset, which tastes better because his mother not only makes it every year but serves it in the same piece of pottery that she has used for decades. One family makes a point of inviting anyone they know who lacks a seder to attend theirs, fulfilling the call that “Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover with us.” 

To a person, the students were pleased when social concerns and world events became part of the conversation at the seder table, and did not like it when their families shied away from spiritual or religious questions.

This intrigued me, of course. The students’ families not untypically assume belief or disbelief in God, Revelation, the historical fact of the Exodus, or the various claims of the Haggadah without ever raising those matters for discussion. What do their families do, I asked, with the passage that for most contemporary Jews in North America is probably the most problematic: the one, just after the meal, when we ask God to “pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not?” We leave it out, said two students.

“We say it in English; we just read it because it is there and don’t expect to understand it.”

“My family is proud of Jewish particularism,” said another, and they embraced this passage as an expression of that stance.

“My Dad likes to point out that part of the Haggadah as being a relic,” said another. “‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ is also a relic, my Dad says, to Jews like us who are secure in America. We don’t need to long for next year in Jerusalem.” 

My students welcome discussion about God and related matters, on the rare occasions when it happens in their homes; the conversation makes them feel less of a disconnect between life with the family and life at JTS, where such discussion—if not exactly common in class and out—is not unusual.

“I never spoke to my family about God, but they had no problem teaching me ritual.”

“I agree. At home theology is not discussed. It’s just assumed as part of Judaism. That was true of me too until I got to JTS.”

“It’s a challenge to sit there (at the seder). It’s hard to think about the profound theological moment we’re going through, when people care more about the brisket.” 


I transmit the following suggestions for the seder to teens and 20-somethings, having learned or relearned them from the students who shared sandwiches and reflection in my office last week. Our Torah speaks of four kinds of parents at Passover:

Wise adults ask students what’s on their minds. Their children need to help them to be wise.

Parents who rebel at finding any personal significance whatever in the seder—religious, cultural, ethical, societal, political—miss a chance for good discussion with the family in their hurry to get to the meal. Slow them down. Tell them, “This is what Passover does for me.”

Simple questions often cut through both talk and avoidance, and so are a real gift to any seder. Ask at least one. Try to get it answered.

Individuals who don’t know how to ask are probably hiding insights and concerns more valuable than the afikomen. Open them up to questions. Open yourself up to answers.

This year, may the observance of Passover help us all to move (and help the world to move) from slavery to freedom, anguish to joy, sorrow to festivity, and darkness to a great light.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.