With the arrival of Passover comes the opportunity to dip into rich traditions handed down through the generations; the familiar journey of the haggadah, a repertoire of beloved songs, and the same china pulled out of storage every year. The story of our exodus from Egypt gets told and retold, each Seder bringing us closer to our ancestors and to our collective memories of struggle and redemption.
The holiday provides us with a brilliant script: the Seder plate full of symbols and the haggadah as a blueprint to follow all the way from the banks of the Nile to the Holy Land. It can be easy to forget, in the great rush to the brisket, that we can also use the haggadah as a springboard, a starting point for telling our own family stories and connecting to the struggles and redemptions of today’s world.
Contemporary research has shown that children who are familiar with family stories are more emotionally resilient than those who are not. Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush of Emory University call this the “intergenerational self”. These children know that they are part of something larger and older than themselves, that they are a link in a chain of adversity and triumph, and that, chances are, they too can handle whatever life throws their way.
This may be the brilliance of Passover. The holiday intentionally develops our intergenerational selves, bonding us to those who came before and empowering us to rise above our own challenges just as they did. It binds our community together, and gives each family gathered around the table the opening they need to strengthen those ties between themselves.
So how can you go “off script” this Passover? What themes in the haggadah could be used as doorways into your family stories? Here are some moments in the Seder that might provide an opening for these connections.
Avadim Hayinu: Bearing Witness to Memory
We kick off the Seder with a summary of the history. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and then God took us out of bondage with great strength and generosity. We read that it is our obligation to tell and retell this story, to bear witness to this history.
What is the purpose of bearing witness? What are different ways of bearing witness? (Memory, monuments, storytelling, recording in writing or on video, etc.) Do we have a moment in our family history that we bear witness to, and preserve in our memory? How did that moment shape our family identity?
Dayeinu: Expressing Gratitude
What are some events in our family story that turned out better than anyone dreamed they might? When did things seem dark, but then turned around? How did our family recover from those difficult times? Does this memory affect the way we approach our lives today? What personal blessings can we mark and celebrate in this special moment?
L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim: Celebrating and Looking Ahead
What are specific family stories that you love to tell? What do you love about them? What stories do you think you will tell from this past year?? What do you hope to celebrate next Passover?
If you’d like to have more personal discussions, consider asking your guests to turn to the person next to them to discuss their answers. This creates an intimate environment for sharing and provides the chance for everyone to answer and reflect.
This Passover, as we revel in the food, music, and familiar readings of the Seder, perhaps our own stories and hero tales will add another dimension to the experience. As we celebrate the freedom of our forefathers, we’ll also be toasting our own blessings, and as we remember the struggle of our people for freedom, we will look to our own world and the freedoms still to be won.