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November 27, 2015 / 15 Kislev, 5776
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A Child-Centric Seder


Dear Gary,

As Pesach approaches, I get worried because I want to have a great Yom Tov, and yet, every year, the seder ends in some sort of fighting and arguing. My husband wants the seder to be all about divreiTorah and so do I, but between the younger children (who we want to be awake for the whole seder) and guests, we somehow end up in stern looks and squabbles. I’m happy we have guests or else we’d probably start yelling at each other and even Eliyahu Hanavi would bail. I know everyone jokes about how tough Pesach is, but I can’t see the humor anymore – and neither can my children. What can we do to manage a calm (I don’t even wish for happy) seder?

A Sad Mom

Dear Sad Mom,

You are far from being alone in the scenario you describe. Imagine the request: a serious reliving of our yetzia (exodus) – knowing that every additional minute spent in serious discussion is praiseworthy – mixed with a need to eat enormous amounts of unusual foods (matzah and marror to name a few), along with a lack of normal food being eaten until hours into the event which begins well after most children’s bedtimes. Oh yeah, and let’s drink a lot of alcohol. But, it’s all about the kids.

Most families struggle when it comes to the sedarim, and with good reason. The seder for a 6-year-old is a completely different experience then for a 16-year-old and even more different for an adult, family member or guest. We rarely ever put all of those people together in one place, expect them all to do the same things and sit for the same amount of time. Too often, it is a recipe for anger and disappointment, which is so unfortunate because we work so hard to prepare for Pesach. To work that hard and be met with a sense of failure can be overwhelming.

The answer (note that I am not writing as a halachic authority) lies in envisioning how you want yourself and your children to look back at the seder night. Like with every mitzvah, parents have to consider the age of their children and how each one will react to the experience. If both you and your husband think about how you want to feel when you wake up Yom Tov morning, you will be well on your way to a better chag.

Sometimes, we get caught up in what we think or have been taught is “right” or “necessary,” and lose sight of what will actually be a healthy spiritual experience. We want our children to look forward to the seder and have positive associations, not memories of family distress. Here are some simple ideas people have suggested to me over the years. Consider these ideas and if you have any halachic questions about any of them, consult your local authority.

1. Feed younger children before the seder begins. Typically the seder begins late – especially on the second night – and it takes a while to see real food. Hungry children are not easygoing children. Feed them earlier so that they are not starving at the start of the seder.

2. Make it about the kids. The Mah Nishtana, the afikomen and so much of the Hagaddah tells us to be festive and engage in childish behavior – if it is with the purpose of teaching and learning. There are songs you can download that are fun spirited. Act out the different parts of the story as you read them. Kids (and adults) can dress up as different characters.

Play charades – create a stack of Judaic situations (Moshe and the burning bush, Avraham smashing his father’s idols, Rivkah giving Esav’s clothes to Yaacov) and then have teams act it out, with everyone else guessing what is being depicted. Do this at different times during the seder.

Have the younger kids grouped together at one end of the table, so if there is a serious discussion taking place, they can be doing something else.

Have small prizes for kids and young teens who ask any legitimate question. This idea can really generate great discussions. If a kid gets a small prize every time he or she asks a question (it doesn’t have to be a great one, just one that isn’t silly), that child feels a part of the seder and is adding something real. Often the adults can answer or consider the questions, which creates an excitement in the child.

3. Let all your guests know before the seder begins what special things you will be doing so everyone can take part.

Every family needs to create realistic expectations for their seder in advance. Typically, couples do not discuss how the seder will work and how to create the best environment for the family and guests involved. However, doing so will ensure that you are both on the same page. You might consider including your children in some part of the discussion – it is a great way to learn what parts of the seder are important to them.

Finally, think about how wonderful you can make this Pesach for your children and guests and how that will ultimately decide how they will look at Pesach in the future. I recently heard a story from Rabbi Topp, rabbi of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, that I found so meaningful and which I believe can be helpful to all of us as we plan our sedarim.

A man fell in love with a beautiful, silver kos Eliyahu but it would have been a financial stretch for him to purchase it. He asked his rav what to do and his rav told him that if he bought this kos, the rav personally guaranteed that Eliyahu HaNavi would come to his seder. Needless to say he purchased the kos and was thrilled as the seder approached. However, Eliyahu HaNavi did not appear. He visited the rav the next morning to relay the news. The rav asked him if he had many guests and did he engage much with his little children during the seder. The man replied that he did not. The rav assured him that the next year, if he followed through, Eliyahu would indeed grace his seder.

The following year, he invited many more people and he spent the majority of his time delighting his young children with wonderful stories of the Hagaddah but to his great frustration, Eliyahu did not show. He reported this to his rav.

“Did you have many guests?” his rav asked. He responded that he did. In fact, he explained that some of them would not have had a seder at all if not for his invite.

“Did you focus on your children?” the rav continued. He responded with an enthusiastic “yes” recalling the loving and meaningful time and energy he had focused on his kids.

“Don’t you see then,” the rav explained, “Eliyahu did attend your seder. YOU were Eliyahu to those guests and your children.”

Too often we wait for someone to bring joy and meaning into our lives, when we can assume the role of giver – helping and loving others. Spend some time not only making this Pesach a kosher one, but a festive and loving one as well.

About the Author: M. Gary Neuman is a psychotherapist, rabbi, and New York Times best-selling author. He is the creator of NeumanMethod.com video programs for marriages and parenting.

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