As the holiday of Passover approaches, Jews the world over are preparing for the Seder, a ceremonial dinner that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and includes the reading of the Haggadah and the eating of symbolic foods. It’s well-known as the celebration of freedom from oppression, yet Passover is also a holiday that empowers education. An essential part of the Seder is expressed with the injunction, “and you shall tell it to your children,” and the Passover Haggadah’s educational components are timeless and impactful. Here are some of the ways the Seder enables parents and teachers alike to impart lessons for life:
1) Experiential Learning – Many contemporary educators believe that people must be actively engaged through experience to achieve true understanding of a concept. This type of learning includes a concrete experience, involving actually performing an activity of some kind; a reflection stage involving public sharing of observations and processing of the experience through discussion and analysis; and the application stage that helps broaden understanding of a concept through generalizations and applications. At the Passover Seder, everyone has the opportunity to “relive” the slavery and Exodus experience with activities such as eating the bread of affliction, tasting the bitter herbs, and leaning on kingly pillows. Those experiences are then processed with discussion of what the hardships of slavery and the miracles of redemption meant to the ancient Jewish people and how we might apply these lessons to our own lives today.
2) Storytelling – One of the oldest art forms, storytelling is a critical pathway to learning. Personal stories or narratives engage listeners and help them make sense of difficult concepts. The Hagada is the quintessential story of the Jewish people’s birth as a nation. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik , a major American Orthodox rabbi and philosopher, explains that storytelling requires more than just remembering that an event occurred, it is actually telling the story at length with all the details—both pleasant and painful. Remembering is something we do in private and storytelling is what we do in public to pass on a message.
In today’s generation, the personal art of storytelling is often replaced by sound bites or short bursts of incomplete thoughts on social media, broadcast to thousands at once. On Passover, we are reminded of the power of a full story, told in person from one generation to the next who will pass this meaningful story on to their own children. Intimate personal expression is an essential way for history to be preserved and transmitted.
3) Dialogue, Q & A – When teachers or parents “talk at” students or children, most of what is said is soon forgotten. If there is a thoughtful discussion that stimulates questions, the parent or teacher will be able to facilitate discovery and promote the learning process. The Passover Seder is rich with such opportunities. Children are encouraged to ask the Four Questions outlined in the Haggadah and to come up with many of their own as well. If the Seder leader does his job right, children and adults alike will survey the scene on the table, read the Haggadah text and ask away, each at his or her own level. As one delves into the Haggadah, there are many statements that beg for interpretation. The role of the Seder leader is not to provide the “right” answer but rather to promote learning by encouraging participants to develop hypotheses, analyze and exchange ideas intelligently and respectfully. This principle applies to any learning process. It is by proactively delving into a subject matter, asking and analyzing, that we discover answers and truths.
4) Putting History in Current Context – Slaves have always been deprived of the power of speech, according to Rabbi Soloveichik. They live in silence with no ability to share their stories and no audience to listen. The free man has an audience and a story to share. At the Seder, it is the duty of the father who represents the original freed slaves to share his tale of liberation with the sons and daughters , who were born in freedom. Perhaps one message of this injunction is to help give voice to the stories of today’s slaves the world over so our children might be moved to advocate and act to help the oppressed in our modern society experience liberation.
5) Empathy and Identification– Any student of history knows he must place himself in the context of a particular era in order to understand the thoughts and actions of the key players of the day. The Haggadah states that each person is required to view himself as though he personally experienced the momentous events of the Exodus. At the Seder, we are urged to see ourselves mixing straw with mud, feeling oppressed by the taskmaster and standing at the edge of the Red Sea, hearing the footsteps and chariots of the pursuing Egyptians so that we are able to truly identify with the experience of the Jews in Egypt and understand the seminal role this played in the birth of the Jewish nation. Feeling the terror of being enslaved and then seeing the glory of G-d’s miracles is the vehicle to empathize, learn and internalize these significant historical events This principle can also be applied to learning and teaching any work of literature or any time period in history. When we transport ourselves back in time to a certain culture or epoch and get into the heads of the leaders of the day and feel the struggles of the people, we can begin to comprehend the events that occurred.
Education plays a major role in the Jewish tradition and nowhere is this better exemplified than at the Seder. Even great leaders and sages must participate in this unique learning process that is surprisingly current in its methodology. One of the most popular Jewish observances, the Seder is an opportunity for everyone to create a truly impactful educational experience by integrating learning with food, family and social interaction.
Alan Kadish, M.D. is President of the Touro College and University System, the largest Jewish-sponsored educational institution in the United States. The system encompasses approximately 18,000 students across 30 campuses and locations in four countries. Under his leadership, Touro provides educational opportunities and career paths ranging from liberal arts to law, medicine, dentistry and health sciences to technology, business, Jewish studies, education and more. Follow Dr. Kadish at https://twitter.com/DrKadish