hagada, opened at ma nishtana

Keeping with the central spirit of Passover of questioning, invigorating and reinventing, we invite you to discuss these issues at home or school.

In this article:

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Review Eser Makot / עשר מכות (Ten Plagues)

What would be the ten worst plagues, events and/or concerns in today's world (or society, one's country, local area, the Mideast, Israel, etc.)? Each person/student may take a few minutes to write their own suggestions, which can then be read together, discussed and voted on for Top Ten. These can be taken home and the children can add them into their seder.

illustrations of the ten plagues Each time and place has its own worst plagues. What are today's?

*See Let's Get Busy - "Ad Campaign", for related activity.

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When time goes two ways

clocks in the desert sand

We often look at the theme - and rightly so! - of how would it feel to be in the sandals of that Israelite in his/her time, going through those experiences. But if you flip the perspective, perhaps it generates some other insights. Instead of us ending up in their time, what would happen if the Israelites suddenly popped out in our time? As they were. (For Dr. Who fans, we'd suspect some accidental run-in with the Tardis leading to this. And given that his name is itself already a question, we wouldn't be surprised to find out he's really Jewish). After our visitor/s and our own jaws stopped dropping (and let's assume we have a "universal translator" device already a la Star Trek) - What would our ancestors the Israelites think of us?

What would they ask us? What would they think of how we have evolved as a people? Where would we find commonalities in beliefs, concerns, actions? Where might they differ? What would Pharaoh think with 20-20 hindsight if he showed up? How would he view the news these days and/or current situations in the Mideast, the state of his own country or that we have a state? What would Moses, Aaron, or Miriam think of Jews today, women today, our practices, our more recent worst and best historical events, the existence of Israel and the kind of Israel it is? You could discuss aspects of all or parts of this theme depending on age and level, or do some of these as a role-play.

This can also work for even younger children. Discuss differences between living in those days and now. The Israelite pops out of the time vehicle and maybe one of our students is exchanged simultaneously into the past too. What kind of first shocks face the time-travelers on each side? What would each one have to figure out how to do first in his/her new environment? How were girls and women, children, elderly, disabilities, various talents or personalities treated differently? What sort of basic skills and knowledge did people need then vs. now, and which prized or shunned? What did they believe about things in the natural world compared to us? What would be most important to each person and how might this differ or be the same?

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Different Aspects of Slavery

Slavery is not only a physical set of conditions. It shapes up a certain mentality and behaviors (or lack of, too). We know it's no accident the Israelites had to wander for 40 years (let that really sink in - forty years - an entire generation) - to shake off and develop into a more free and "take charge" mindset capable of peoplehood - a group mentality and "persona" that could hold up, survive, create and advance itself.

a businessman in chains
  • For younger children - what does it actually mean to be a slave - especially compared to the life and rights they have? What do you have to do and what aren't you allowed or lack any means to be able to do? How would that make you feel, especially over a long time? What would it be like to not have school and other things one takes for granted? Or to not have dreams and hopes, like "I want to be a _____ when I grow up?", "I want to travel to _____." "I want to learn how to _____". " I want to play ____." Etc. If they saw someone else was in some way oppressed (or closer to home- labeled such-and-such, bullied, etc.) how do they feel about that? What might they think they should and could do then to help change that?

  • For older youth and adults - What enslaves us today? How do we tend to enslave ourselves? What can we do or change to start to break free? How do we sometimes unintentionally end up "enslaving" or making life harder for ourselves or for others (in aspects of our relationships, authority positions at work or at home, economically, environmentally, in how we look at those different or foreign or unusual, etc …?) You could direct this also to a group level - peers, family, Jewish people, citizen or as part of the world... (See our material in other sections that discuss Pesach regarding how the chag's customs, issues and messages all go hand-in-hand with self-examination, renewal, etc.). Since Pesach is viewed as one of our New Year's (we have a few), this is a good time for discussing what we may want to work on changing and how.

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A Modern Take

a row of lightbulbs, one is lit Start a tradition of adding one new idea - large or small - each year.

Students, kids, families: discuss ahead of time how you might want to update the hagada and seder experience today.

  • What would you possibly change, add, do differently… to make your seder feel more comfortable, meaningful and accessible in learning and participating?
  • How can one "retell" better?
  • What about the four names of the chag and what each emphasizes?
  • What are your best memories of a past Pesach and/or seder experience?
  • What are your most favorite parts of the seder and why?
  • What questions do you want added at your seder?

Useful particularly with a child:

  • What have you learned about Pesach recently that you want to share at the seder, or hope someone asks about so you can answer?
  • What "job" do you want in helping with preparations and/or during the seder?

Even if you intend to do a traditional straightforward seder reading, etc. - what one modification, addition, embellishment, idea, personal family mark can you make? It could even be something in the Passover meal, a kind of pillow, a little introduction or poem… In the spirit of "why is this night different from all other nights?" - start a tradition of deciding as a family each year on including one small "new" thing - to make it different somehow from all other times before. Little things add up, and create special personal connections and memories when agreed and worked on together.

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Handling Changes

Being free (which isn't the same as being "ready") and entering into a larger group covenant was a radical and suddenly fast-paced change. (Moses had real guts). Plus leaving, and in such haste as our ancestors did, still required a hefty leap of faith. These were all serious "shocks to the system", a tremendous series of "shifts" to absorb. Staying with "known" troubles may sometimes feel still preferable to such new, vast and complete "unknowns" everywhere one turns. This same tendency certainly still exists today within and all around us.

What seismic changes have we witnessed in our own times like this? (Or in our own lives?) Were there instances when we took part in some small or larger way in a big change we could share? Here especially an older relative or guest could be a wonderful source to tap too as witness (or activist). Share the feelings, fears, excitement, disappointment, relief…

a confused girl holding her head, surrounded by question marks

For younger children this can be a discussion of what new experiences and encounters feel like, or sudden or major changes, and when such things feel frightening or exciting or…. And why we feel this way or that (or both). Maybe they can share a personal example and explain that it made them feel _____.

If we had a symbol on the seder plate or symbolic act (like so many things in the seder) for something like "fear of unknowns" or "big life changes" or revolutionary passages, etc. what might it be?

Faith, covenant, responsibility - Another aspect of this - how much is it okay to expect from G-d, if anything? What constitutes a "leap of faith", and when are leaps of faith more appropriate? When do we have to look at what responsibilities we must take on in a covenant, partnership, etc. as a "free" member of society or one's family, or… ***And for that matter, when are we missing seeing what G-d has already provided us with and using those gifts within and around us- with free will and choice, while doing so ethically and responsibly? (Obviously this can go in plenty of directions).

Becoming both a free person - with responsibilities that also come with freedom - and part of a larger whole - that can be quite an identity switch to deal with (and often one we can also relate to personally). Rabbi Hillel (the source of korech - the "Hillel sandwich" tradition in our seder) had a now famous saying that while not mentioned in the seder, is in some ways so appropriate to this very time and the immense shifts experienced by our ancestors: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"
? . אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי
Im en ani li, mi li? Ukshe-ani le-atzmi, ma ani? Ve-im lo achshav, eimatay?

G-d did his part, so must we. When we retell the story, look at what it also tells us: action and deed matter, timing matters, and radical change is possible and sometimes necessary, in ourselves or in the world. In that time, to be a slave, one's whole life, with no hope of change was far more the norm than not. The Exodus story is a radical departure from most accepted "givens" of that time (and for unfortunately much longer after, and still today in many places). It can be seen as a revolutionary document and way of thinking - Identity and fate need not be permanently unalterable. G-d gave us the first hand up and example. The rest is up to us to continue that.

Matza is thus also a first taste of freedom - the first thing we ate as a free people! And also "freedom" in its basics and simplicity. Haste and straightforwardness - no time for debate, worrying "what if's" anymore – it's past that stage. Look at that matza again and its associations. It goes from lechem oni to afikomen. From bondage, indignity and poverty to liberation and redemption, then onward ahead in continuing that commitment in tikun olam /fixing or bettering the world. The seder cannot conclude until the afikomen is returned for everyone to eat a piece (the part of the seder called tzafun). As we eat that piece, it is like reaffirming that continuing commitment to a next step in further redemption.

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Arba Kushiyot

a man pondering

Arba Kushiyot / ארבע קושיות (the Four Questions) looks at difference head on. And reminds us to question ourselves (see above). Here is another question (appropriate for any age) - we too are different. So how are we different today from yesterday, or last year, or at the last seder? And how will we be different by the next one? And how do we hope to be more consciously different?

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Arba-a Banim

Arba-a Banim / ארבעה בנים (Four Sons or Children): This is typically depicted in translation and by longer description as…
  wise (wanting to learn more about this),
  wicked and/or rebellious (it's your thing and doesn't concern me),
  simple (bewildered and needs to start with first basics of learning)
  and ignorant (is too unaware to even ask simplest questions about what's going on).

Here is something a little different, but in the spirit of the chag - challenge and debate these very depictions. Maybe they aren't always quite so straightforward or harsh or need to be answered in one way only. After all, it’s a simple, distilled example that should provoke thoughtful discussion. One could say that we are also reminded that all learn differently, come from varied backgrounds, may be enticed to curiosity and interest differently…

So how can we use that understanding to help, and in some cases "bring around" our children, our fellow Jews, and others? It's really no idle question - we really do grapple with these issues every day - in roles as parents, teachers, neighbors, congregants, tax-payers, do-gooders and/or as voters.

Again, don't discount a discussion about some aspects of such themes with younger children - they sometimes have thoughtful, original or at least surprising observations and ideas to offer. Ask them, for example…

  what they like to learn,
  how they like to learn,
  what turns them on and off and why,
  what they like so far in their Jewish identity
  and what maybe feels problematic and why…

As parents and teachers, we often end up learning from our charges what and how to reach and teach best. A good discussion opportunity even with a little one can go to great places we never expected, as long as they feel they are given enough to go on, and feel a comfortable enough way to share it with us.