Q. Why do we have a haggadah on Passover? A. So we can seder [say the] right words.
It's a terrible joke, but it suggests why seders have gone from righteous to rote, from dynamic to deadly boring. Everything is too much by the book, the haggadah, to be exact, in the worst possible way, says David Arnow, in "Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities." (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004, www.livelyseders.com).
Arnow says that seders are supposed to be living, vibrant, creative -- with room for spontaneous discussion and new ideas that reinvent what freedom means to the current generation, which gathers to commemorate a liberation that occurred thousands of years ago.
"I love the haggadah," Arnow told The Journal. "But I probably wouldn't if I opened it just for seders."
The 23 chapters of Arnow's book cover everything from the Four Questions and the 10 Plagues to women in the Exodus and the role of Elijah. Each chapter poses discussion topics, activities and study ideas for adults and children alike to tap into creativity and to fulfill truly the Passover mitzvah: to feel as if you personally went out of Egypt.
"For most of us, simply reading the haggadah no longer helps us feel as if we had been redeemed from Egypt," Arnow said. "Instead, the experience of reading more than a few pages ... often makes us feel as if we are oppressed, saddled with an ancient, confusing text that never quite tells the story we expect to hear."
Passover was never meant to be that way. The origin of the holiday's ritual observance can be found in the Mishnah compiled by Yehuda Hanasi (Judah the Prince), around 200 C.E. It reveals how Passover was celebrated following the destruction of the Second Temple.
"The Mishnah created a balance in the seder," Arnow said. There were parts of the ceremony that became fixed, like the four cups of wine, Hallel, dipping, reclining, explaining the meaning of matzah, and the pascal sacrifice. "But," he added, "it also made it clear that the child was encouraged to ask his father spontaneous questions about the seder."
The current rote rendition of the four questions is the "worst-case scenario," said Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah, in Valley Village. "In addition to the mah nishtanah, we need to create a seder around teaching children how to ask their own questions, which goes back to the original structure of the Mishnah."
"If you arrive at the seder with no preparation or commitment," Finley said, "of course it's going to be boring, meaningless and irrelevant." Understanding the original structure of the seder, and then allowing latitude to break away from that structure is key, he said.
"We usually include a Slinky on the seder table," Finley added. "It's circular, representing the cycle of the year. It has a spring -- because Passover is a spring holiday. We always pick some bizarre object and have people talk about it and its significance to the seder."
Arnow's book offers a variety of other ways to make things interesting. He suggests working on only one chapter each year and beginning seder preparation several weeks in advance.
One idea is to focus on what happened the night of the last plague -- the slaying of the Egyptians' first-born sons. Commentators say that many Egyptian mothers went to Jewish families and asked them to take in their sons to spare them. Arnow suggests dividing guests into three groups: the Egyptian mothers pleading for their children's lives, a group that argues for taking them in and another group that argues against. Ultimately, the guests must decide what to do. Once the decision has been made, Arnow writes, all should then read the midrash itself from Exodus Rabbah 18:2, which reveals the outcome. There was no Disney ending: God smote all Egyptian first-born sons irrespective of whether they'd been taken in by the Israelites.
Another activity could compare two contrasting biblical verses. In Numbers 11:4-5, the Israelites wept and said: "We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic." Whereas, in Numbers 13:23, the text reads: "When the spies returned from the Promised Land they brought grapes, pomegranates, and figs." Guests should come up with reasons to explain why leeks and onions are connected with Egypt, while grapes and pomegranates are associated with Israel. (Assistance can be found in Deuteronomy 11:10-14.)
One way or another, families have to find a way to make the seder connect.
"People get bored because they don't understand the significance of why they're there in the first place," said Jonathan Rose, a 44-year-old musician, who grew up in Israel but today rarely participates in a seder.
Lena Katz, a 30-year-old writer from Manhattan Beach, celebrates a lively Passover with her family and her Israeli boyfriend every year. "My family has fun because we're always bursting into song or drinking a full glass of wine instead of a sip, and just basically injecting some life into a rather dry -- if worthy -- old text," Katz said.
Steve Lipman, a 43-year-old technology-program manager from Orange County, took on the actual text. "For years I heard complaints about the haggadah that we used not speaking to the seder participants," Lipman said. "So using a variety of free sources I wrote my own haggadah. We've been using it at our seder ever since."
A successful seder will speak to all ages, and will "stimulate children's spontaneous questions," Arnow said. "It's our job to create a lively seder where that spontaneity can flourish."
He recommends asking children directly why they think the seder night is different from other nights. He also suggests that adults and children re-enact the exodus, alongside a story in his book titled, "The Last Night in Egypt," which is designed with children in mind. The story concludes with everyone leaving Egypt carrying a small knapsack of matzah and bitter herbs and, later, arriving in the Promised Land (in this case the dinner table), ready to begin the seder.
Many new haggadot embrace ideas similar to Arnow's; the goal is to restore the balance between the fixed rituals and the more creative elements advocated in the Mishnah.
"The haggadah evolved over a tremendous amount of time and in response to all types of changing circumstances," said Arnow. "We're all just trying to get back in touch with that wisdom and to make the seder as meaningful to our generation as it was back then."