Before I had my own children, I remember being invited many years ago to a traditional Passover Seder at the home of our rabbi and his family. I expected to hear deep insights into the Haggadah, the ancient text that relates the story of the exodus of the Jewish People from Egypt to become a nation in their own homeland. To my surprise, the rabbi directed all of the discussion to the young children who sat at the table. He told them stories, listened to their ideas, and encouraged them to ask questions. And there was a lot of joyful singing, adults and children together. The fulfillment of the commandment “thou shall teach thy children…” unfolded before my eyes, and brought back my own wonderful childhood memories of the Passover Seder, when the story of Passover became part of who I am.
What causes a child to accept the teachings and values of his parents so they become his way of life? Children learn best from those with whom they have a close, safe and loving relationship. Children must always feel the warm invitation to exist in the presence of their parents and other adults in their lives who care for them. This kind of relationship, called an attachment relationship, must be nurtured and protected so that it can deepen over the years. This is the context within which parents can instruct, direct and correct their children, and children can remain open to their parents’ influence.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld explains that when children are not in right relationship with their parents, their levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and glutamate increase. Parents who put pressure on children to perform, or who are themselves under chronic stress, trigger these stress chemicals in their children’s brains, and create a state of alarm in their children, which interferes with the ability to learn. When a child is being cared for by a calm and loving adult, his brain releases opioids, oxytocin and prolactin, which diminish feelings of anxiety, fear and stress.
When the relationship feels safe to a child, he can remain in the vulnerable position of being dependent on those who are responsible for him, and his natural curiosity, inclination to ask questions and eagerness to learn will remain vibrant.
The Passover Seder creates an atmosphere that is warm and inviting. Parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins come together to remember and tell the Passover story in great detail. The story is recounted as if all present had actually participated in the ancient events. The head of the household, who conducts the Seder, prepares questions, games and even dresses in Biblical costume to stimulate the children’s sense of play and curiosity. The table is set festively with special dishes and glassware; the matzoth, unleavened bread baked especially for the holiday, and the traditional platter called the Seder plate, occupy a central place on the table. The Seder plate is laden with symbolic foods that include fresh leaves of romaine lettuce, celery, parsley, eggs, roasted shank bones and haroset – a mixture of fresh chopped apples, dates, walnuts, sweet wine and spices. Each food tells its own story, and the children experience the ancient customs that have been passed down from generation to generation with all their senses.
In the weeks before the holiday, parents include the children in all the preparations, so that by the time the Seder takes place, the children are bubbling over with excitement. They anticipate sitting at the table until past midnight with all the adults, reading the Haggadah, talking, singing, and eating. When the hour gets late, the head of the household must find the afikoman – the last matza that is eaten before completing the Seder – which the children, whispering and giggling, have hidden.
The customs and traditions of Passover, passed from generation to generation, have kept children oriented to their parents, grandparents, and ancestors for centuries. It’s no wonder that it has become one of my favorite holidays!