Without question, Pesah is the most important holiday of the Jewish year. It eclipses Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It outstrips Purim and Hanukkah by a great distance. Shavuot? Sukkot? Fahgeddaboutit. Pesah is where it’s at. Let me tell you why.
Pesah is the only holiday where you have a chance to guarantee a Jewish future. That’s how high the stakes are. Pesah is the most spiritually sustainable holiday of the year. It’s the festival that incorporates the greatest creativity and personal engagement. It’s also the time that we have the most people around the table. It’s an opportunity of epic proportions.
And it’s up to us not to let this opportunity pass by.
Somewhere between 70-80% of American Jews still show up for the seder. Most of them are not affiliated with Jewish communities or institutions. Many of them do not feel that Judaism infuses their lives, or has any real value from which they can draw. Many are bringing partners and children who have not yet joined the Jewish people.
And that’s where you come in. You can be a Pesah evangelist. (You should pardon the association.)
And how might you do that? Very simple:
Ask questions and discuss.
Sure, you should sing, drink four cups of wine, make a Hillel sandwich, spill wine from your cup when you remember the plagues, etc.
But the real way to be a Pesah evangelist is to get away from the printed seder to one that includes asking more questions than the standard four: questions of who we are and why this all matters to us. The Talmud (Pesahim 115b) tells us that matzah is the kind of bread that elicits conversation:
אמר שמואל (דברים טז, ג) לחם עוני (כתיב) לחם שעונין עליו דברים
Shemuel said: It is written (Deuteronomy 16:3) “lehem oni” (literally, “the bread of poverty”): [this can be understood as] the bread over which one answers many matters.
Here is a list of possible discussion questions (some have simple answers, but can be used to spark further conversation). Use them at your seder table:
“Big picture” questions:
- What does it mean to be a slave, literally and/or figuratively?
- In what way are we slaves today (i.e. to the clock, to work, to societal expectations, to money, etc.)?
- Envision not being a slave to these things. What would that feel like? What is the downside?Why is it important to have a celebration of freedom?
- What is the meaning of freedom, and what responsibilities does freedom carry with it?
- Who or what is your Pharaoh?
- To what are we slaves today, and how are we free?
- Would it have been easier to have remained slaves in Egypt?
- What is your favorite Jewish holiday and why? Why or why not Pesah?
- The Pesah story is the precursor to the giving of the Torah. What is our relationship today to the Torah and its mitzvot?
- Fill in the blanks: Had God _______ but not _______, would it have been enough?
Details of seder:
- Why do we “recline” while we eat/drink?
- Why do we dip some things into other things?
- Why do we eat eggs, and why is there one on the seder plate but it is never mentioned?
- Why do we tell the same story year after year?
- Why have a seder at all?
- What is the significance of each of the items on the seder plate, and in particular the shankbone, the matzah and the bitter herbs? (this discussion fulfills one of the obligations detailed in the Mishnah)
- Why are there all these funny songs at the end?
- Why do we eat the afikoman as dessert?
General Pesah questions:
- What are the prohibited foods of Pesah?
- If the Conservative movement allows us to eat kitniyot (legumes, etc.), is that enough of a reason to dispense with a 700-year-old custom for Ashkenazi Jews?
- Doesn’t it seem strange that Sefaradim can traditionally eat some things on Pesah that Ashkenazim do not? And yet we are all Jews. Discuss!
- Which days of Pesah are Yom Tov (i.e. festival days on which many of the celebratory Shabbat guidelines apply) and why?
- What’s the deal with the Omer? When do we start counting and why? When does it conclude?
- How is Pesah connected to the next festival, Shavuot?
If you need more resources to draw on, a whole bunch of them may be found here, courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America:
Don’t let this opportunity go. The seder is a wonderful way to reconnect with Judaism, for everybody around the table. Good luck! Happy evangelizing! And hag sameah.
Rabbi Seth Adelson