We've all sat in this kind of a seder: the leader reads a passage, with a lot or very little enthusiasm, and then the rest of the table kind of drones the next paragraph together. Maybe, just to make it more participatory, we go around the table, taking turns, but always from the text.
Of course, we're crammed around a table not designed to fit everyone there, and we're smelling delicious food coming in from the kitchen, while we get to enjoy a lovely sprig of parsley, dipped in salt-water. Awesome!
Well, not really. Pretty awful, actually. But, what can we do? This is tradition, right? Well...no. The amazing thing is that that kind of a seder isn't actually proper. This is one of those cases where people are so obsessed with "doing it right" that they actually are doing it very wrong. Because, the whole intent of the seder is to have an actual, engaging, fun conversation, not to read an ancient, ritual text.
Last Shabbat, I held a brief workshop on how to make a seder more enjoyable. I'm not gong to try to include everything here (especially since that was a much quicker version of a class taught by my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman), but here are a few things you really need to know, if you're hosting a seder next month.
First of all, you don't have to run the seder at your table. Feel free, up until the main meal, to be seated comfortably in some other room. That alone will make people more relaxed, and more engaged. And, you don't need to starve--the "dipping" to which we refer in the seder ("Why on all other nights do we not dip, but tonight we dip twice?") was actually a full appetizer course. Raw veggies were dipped in flavored water--a kind of ancient crudite. So, put out lots of yummy snacks (especially cut veggies and dip), and stop torturing your guests!
But, more important is the seder itself. And, here is the big revelation--there is no mitzvah (no commandment) to read the Haggadah (the book containing the text of the seder). The original seder (as described almost 2000 years ago in the Mishna) was actually modeled on the Greek symposium--it was meant to be a chance to lean back (literally and figuratively), have a drink and talk about interesting topics--in this case, the topic is freedom. There were some required components (you had to tell a story that went from degradation to glory; you had to talk about the Torah passage that begins "My father was a wandering Aramean"; you had to explain the 3 main symbols on the table--the sacrificial lamb, the matza and the maror), but those were meant to be the starting points and framework of the discussion. The real seder was contained in the discussions which flowed from those starting points. And, those discussions could go on and on, in any direction they might flow. Most of the text of the Haggadah is actually just examples of digressions and associations made by our sages and ancestors--kind of a greatest hits of seders past, and a cheat-sheet if you don't know what to talk about. But, it was never intended as a rite--something which must be performed exactly right, year after year.
Much better is to create your own text, and to create your own discussions. Rather than just read from a static text, ask a serious, thought provoking question about what we just read. Find an alternative reading or poem which might spark someone's own ideas, or at least generate a reaction. Create an actual living, breathing seder, not a ossified, robotic ritual!
Does that sound difficult? Well, it does take some work and preparation on the part of the leader. But, not surprisingly, there are lots of great resources to help. I've compiled a list of a few of my favorites and put them on our website, but there are so many more. Feel free to share some of yours in the comments, as well.
In each and every generation, each of us is supposed to see ourselves as if we, personally, were brought out of Egypt. The seder is not our night to read, the seder is our night to remember, and to pretend, and to think, and to wonder, and to talk, and to talk, and to talk. May your seder be lively, and may your seder be alive.
HaShanah HaBa'ah b'Yerushalayim -- Next Year In Jerusalem!