(recycled from an old post on a currently-suspended website)
Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday in terms of ritual. Irrespective of what it’s actually become in a commercial sense (seriously, God doesn’t say anything in the Torah to the effect of “hey, I hope you guys figure out how to make frozen pizza out of this), the notion of changing our lifestyles for a week can make for an interesting shift in perspective .
But I love the Seder most of all. It’s a night of storytelling, a meal combined with an infinitely adaptable open source curriculum, one that we’re empowered to continuously tweak so that our Story of liberation from Egypt then can be made relevant to our Story as both Jews and human beings today. It’s a time when we say “let all who are hungry come and eat,” and if we live that up to it’s truest form, we can feed whoever we want. As far as I’m concerned, the best Seder is one that includes people who do not consider themselves to be Jewish. Better than that is if they feel 100% welcome and comfortable, and even better if they can fully connect to the content of the learning at the meal. I think that’s a wonderful goal for any Seder facilitator.
I grew up at my father’s side as he led our family’s Seders for many years and it was one of my favorite things in the world. Every year, he searched for new and relevant content to bring to our experience of eating and celebrating together. When I was 27, I decided to stay in New York and co-lead a Seder with some dear friends. It lived up to the standard that I listed above, and I was hooked. My parents were lovingly disappointed in their own way.
“Why don’t you come home for Passover anymore?”
“What were you two doing when you were my age?”
“We…oh, we were hosting Seders in our home for our friends.”
“Then it’s my turn. Y’all did a good job.”
A couple years back, I did some sharing about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I also offered a reflection exercise that can be used by anyone, irrespective of faith. Now I’m doing it again. You can use it for your Seder, or you can use it with your friends, depending on the situation. Totally up to you.
I call it The 21 Jump Street. If you’re smart, you’ll figure out why.
The only things you need are people, Post-It notes, pens/pencils and comfort with a writing exercise at your Seder.
The Context: At the Seder, we celebrate our ancestors’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Putting aside the debate about the historicity of that particular narrative, it is an essential part of the Jewish Story. One of the most important pieces of the Seder is that we are asked to step into the shoes (sandals?) of our ancestors and view ourselves as if we were also slaves in Egypt. The challenge in our modern lives is that most of us cannot truly relate to this type of experience, though we must recognize that we have brothers and sisters in this world whose lives remains far too similar to our history, and we also recognize that there are those in this world who are in fact living as slaves. I’m glad to see that the conversation about fair labor and human trafficking is central to the Passover conversation in my community this year, and I look forward to the day when all people can only think of slavery as a sad memory as opposed to something that still exists in today’s world.
The purpose of this exercise is to address the idea that we all have some version of personal bondage, something that holds us back from being the people that we would fully and truly like to become. (Let me add that I do not intend to diminish actual slavery with this, but it is meant to create a different type of relevant connection to the Seder).
The Exercise: Explain the notion of personal bondage, as I described it above. We all have the thing (or many things) in our lives, whatever it may be. Perhaps it’s an addiction to cigarettes or an overcommitment to our work lives over our personal lives. Everyone’s got something. Pass a Post-It note to everyone in your group, and ask each person to write that thing in a word or two onto their notes, and then to stick the notes to their foreheads. When everyone is done, have the group look around at what everyone has written.
Ask folks to raise their hands if they see at least one other note that they can relate to. Almost everyone will almost always raise their hands. You know why? Because we generally share the same struggles – it’s just that we don’t speak about them openly as much as we should. Stigma is a funny thing that way.
It’s a common experience. We all have those things that we wish we could change, that hold us back just a little bit. We want to be freed of them. It’s not always easy to do so, but at the Passover Seder, I like to create a moment where we symbolically try to let those things go. And sometimes, just sometimes, you can use that as an opportunity to start fresh from there.
You can close the activity by placing a bowl in the center of the table, and asking each person to free themselves just for tonight by tearing up their Post-Its and placing them into the bowl. As an alternative, you can have people tear up the notes of others instead. Leave the bowl at the table as a reminder of those little struggles in our lives and the intention to move past them. Or pour wine on them or something. Totally up to you.
However, the last time I ran this activity at a Seder in 2013, a guest lovingly pushed back on the close to the exercise. He argued that perhaps we don’t have to symbolically “tear up” and discard our struggles, but instead we can hold them close, embrace them as a part of our whole selves. He insisted on keeping his little post-it note pasted over his heart for the rest of the evening, as did a couple others. I loved what he did with the exercise, so I share that variation with you as well.
There you go: a thing for your Seder! Use it if you like.
Love and kisses,