The Pesach Seder — Make the Ikar, Ikar

With Pesach just around the corner, it’s time to start giving consideration to some of the more major aspects of the Yom Tov. Often, a common theme in the preparations leading up to Pesach is “Let’s keep the ikar, ikar and the tafel, tafel.” In other words, as much as we would all love to do everything in the most mehudar and l’chat’chilah way imaginable, we cannot run ourselves ragged trying to banish every last infinitesimal crumb from our abodes and get every last corner to a bright, spotless sheen if that is going to come at the expense of shalom bayis, one’s own sanity, or the ability to actually experience simchas Yom Tov. Often, we have no choice but to remind ourselves of what really it is that is necessary to do, what the main components are that we absolutely cannot forgo, and leave it at that.

This much we know and are already pretty adept at implementing.

What may yet be subject to persistent neglect, though, is, believe it or not, the very centerpiece of the whole Chag. Who doesn’t automatically identify and associate Pesach with the Seder? Of course, we all inherently realize that the Seder represents the core and prize jewel of this beautiful Yom Tov. All the strenuous and sometimes seemingly endless labor of love in the weeks leading up to Pesach is primarily to be able to have a successful Seder.

So now we need to ask ourselves, what is the main thrust of the Seder? Upon perhaps even less than a moment’s reflection, the answer is obvious: Maggid. Relating the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim. But let’s take this one step further. In this momentous and singular process of Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim, through which and by which we transmit the mesorah of emunah to the next generation, upon whom is our primary focus meant to be? The children, of course! And now for the last point. What comprises the main components of Maggid, of Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim? Well, that is also obvious, isn’t it? The slavery and the process of the Jews leaving Mitzrayim.

Let’s sum up. The main thrust of all our preparations for Pesach is the Seder. The crown jewel of the Seder is Maggid. The main part of Maggid is detailing the actual story of slavery in Mitzrayim and the redemption process therefrom. And the main people upon whom we should be focused in this monumental act is our children.

Now we have to ask ourselves if how our Seder evolves reflects this paradigm or not. It won’t take long to realize that for many of us, this is unfortunately not what happens. So what is it that is throwing a monkey wrench into all of our carefully laid, straightforward plans? It’s actually pretty simple.

You see, by the time we sit down for the Seder, we are raring to go, full of energy and excitement for this amazing night. And, because we are practically jumping out of our skin to express that holy, creative energy, we pounce on the first opportunity to do so. What this translates into, in practical terminology, is that already at Kadesh, Urchatz, Karpas and Yachatz, there is a wealth of Torah wisdom pouring forth: questions, answers, stories, discussions, divrei Torah. And the list goes on. How much more so when we actually reach Ha Lachma Anya, Mah Nishtanah, the Four Sons, and so on. Especially if you’ve got a decent number of school-aged children. Each one has a notebook packed with divrei Torah, stories, questions and answers from their rebbi or morah and, of course, every child is plotzing to say as many of those divrei Torah as you are prepared to hear.

The upshot of all this is that by the time we get to Arami Oved Avi — which marks the beginning of the real meat and potatoes of ­Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim — we are more or less spent. Often, by that point the hour is late. The younger children are getting cranky, and the older ones (and the adults) are hungry and not much better off. The initial excitement has worn off to a great extent and we are feeling the crash of physical exhaustion culminating from all the days and weeks of arduous preparation. In a nutshell, we really don’t have much energy left to do any type of significant explanation, expansion or explication. Also, we are worried that we will not make it in time to eat the afikoman before chatzos. So what do we do? The only logical thing, right? Turn on “efficiency mode” and move through the “remainder” of Maggid in as expeditious a fashion as possible.

And what a shame that is.

Because although one is certainly yotzei (as long as everyone understands what is being read), a mehudar Sippur Yetzias ­Mitzrayim it most definitely is not.

So what’s the eitzah? What can we do to shift our focus to the main part of Maggid?

The truth is that it is not easy, but after much thought, here is what I can suggest (and maybe more readers can write in their own ideas as well). First of all, start by preparing yourself way in advance. Find a sefer that will help you to go over all the major details of the story line of the slavery and the geulah. Parshiyos Shemos, Va’eira, Bo, and Beshalach with peirush Rashi, by the way, is an excellent place to start. Make a point to zoom in on illustrations (conceptual [meaning by verbally explaining]; not visual — the drawings usually just distract the children from being able to really listen to the ­Sippur) that emphasize how awful the slavery was. The hard work. The disruption of family life. The beatings. And so on. In describing the geulah part, you, of course, will want to go into all the details about the back and forth between Moshe and Paroh, with a vivid description of everything that transpired, particularly the eser makos. For both parts you’ll want to rely heavily on the Midrashim that describe all of this in vivid detail (there are sefarim that have put all the Midrashim together).

Once you have that arsenal of critical information at your disposal, mentally prepare yourself that this is what you are going to focus on during the Seder. Going into all the vivid details of the slavery and redemption is where you are going to channel your main energy. You will deliberately hold back and even rush through the earlier part of the Seder in order to reach and dwell at length on that main part of Maggid.

Now, as far as the kids are concerned, here is what you can do. About a week before Pesach, tell each one privately something to the following effect: “Tatty and Mommy are really looking forward to hearing your divrei Torah that you have prepared for the Seder. I’m sure you’ll also have lots of great questions to ask, and perhaps even some answers to give. However, because there is so much to go through in the Seder, each kid will say only his two favorite divrei Torah during the actual Seder. We really want to hear all of the divrei Torah, though, so throughout the rest of the Yom Tov, Chol Hamoed, and the last days, we want you to share a few more of your divrei Torah at each meal. If you do that, bli neder, you will get a prize after Yom Tov is over.”

In addition to that, it would be very helpful if you could find a way to directly focus your children’s attention on the eser makkos.  For example, you could specifically ask them that the two divrei Torah that they choose be related to the eser makkos. Another idea, although this one is admittedly not for everyone, is to assign each one of your children a role to play during the eser makkos. For example, for the makkah of blood, one of your kids could prepare a few small bottles of water dyed red with food coloring (mixed in before Yom Tov) and place them (hidden) in a few strategic locations in the area where your Seder is taking place.  He can dress up in a Mitzri costume and run around like mad trying to find water, and every time he finds a bottle it is blood! For kinim, all the little ones can act out how terribly itchy it is to have lice all over your body. For arov, you can buy lifelike beast masks ahead of Yom Tov and some of your kids can wear them and run around “terrorizing” all the people at the Seder (just be careful to prep the little ones really well way in advance so it does not traumatize them; you may even want to take them out of the room for this one).

This way, the whole time the kids will be excitedly anticipating getting to the eser makkos and spending much time on it.

Lastly, make sure that everyone at your Seder is on board with your plans well in advance. If you have teenage children (and older), parents, or others guests attending your Seder, call them up or send them an email about two weeks ahead of Pesach detailing precisely what they should expect.

With foresight, planning and preparation, b’ezras Hashem you will have a lot of success making ikar that which is truly ikar.

Chag kasher v’same’ach!


Rabbi Yehoshua Berman is Rosh Kollel, Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.