Monday, April 17, 2017

"Telling The Story... And Finally Learning The Lesson"

When I was first transformed from “camper” to “counselor”, my incredulous, one-word reaction to that unlikely elevation was


That’s how I feel leading a Passover Seder.  (A traditional gathering, in which the “Passover Story” is recounted, involving the Jewish slaves’ exodus from bondage in Egypt.)

In my formative years continuing into my twenties – my “formative years” taking seemingly forever – my Uncle Irving led the family Seder (his older brother, my Dad, having passed away years before.)

Uncle Irving knew how to do it.  He once explained to me that as a teenager, attending daily memorial services for his late father, the synagogue’s devout congregants required him to lead the morning prayers – in Hebrew – and if he made a single mistake, he was instructed to go back to the beginning and start again.

This forced indoctrination taught Uncle Irving to read Hebrew fluently.  But it wasn’t just that that made him an inspiring Seder Master of Ceremonies.  Uncle Irving helmed the family gatherings with the gleeful enthusiasm of a hungry man devouring a cupcake.

And now it’s me.  Harboring a fondly remembered “tough act to follow.”

Not only am I different – in both training and temperament – the guests around last week’s Seder table were different, all bright and congenial, but lacking minimal liturgical instruction, the attendees ranging in enthusiasm from “Happy to be here” to “When do we eat?”

We tried to make it fun.  Kazoos were provided, to accompany the more familiar Seder melodies – at one point, I actually played a kazoo and tried delivering the song’s lyrics at the same time – and Dr. M’s brother Shelley weighed in professionally on the clarinet. 

A newly instituted  “Plagues Bag” was passed around, in which visitors reached into a small paper bag, each of them extracting a rubbery replica of one of the infamous “Ten Plagues” inflicted on the Egyptians, hoisting it aloft when the name of “their plague” is dutifully recited.

We made our way through the Hagaddah (a derivation of the Hebrew word for “telling”, because the mission of the Seder is to annually retell the story), stopping to explain the various rituals, all of them tangible reminders of the what happened in Egypt. 

My selected personal “hook” for the evening’s exercise, gleaned from the Hagaddah itself, was to involve the children at the table, in our case, Milo, five-and-a-half and Jack, just turned three.  At one point, I asked Jack to read “the small print at the bottom of Page 17”, to which he reasonably replied, “I don’ wannoo.”  Understandable.  But at least I included his name.)

My primary “Target of Instruction”, therefore, was Milo.  Though there are serious obstacles in telling a five-year-old this particular story.  How do you explain “slaves”?  How do you inform a “First-Born” himself about the chillingly merciless “Tenth Plague”?  And then there’s the entire “God issue” that I am still wrestling with myself.   

In trying to engage Milo, I look for explanatory analogies, landing, imperfectly, on The Lion King.  I compare Moses to “Simba” (both of whom were required to run away), relate Pharaoh to “Scar” (because they were both unredeemably evil) and liken the unseen voice of the Creator to the unseen intonations of “Dead Mufasa.”  (Which I may have possibly made up.)

A comparative “reach”, to be sure, but it was the best I could come up with.  I was searching for anything that would trigger a connection, so that Milo would “get it”, remember the story and, later, pass it along.

One of the most popular Seder tunes is “Dayenu”, a song of thanksgiving, whose opening line is, more or less, “If God had taken us out of Egypt” – the implication being, “And nothing else.” – that alone would have been enough for us. 

“Dayenu” then goes on to delineate thirteen additional blessings, stopping after each one to profess, “It would have been enough for us.”
Attempting to get Milo to connect with this idea of grateful appreciation, I asked him,

“Milo, if you got one incredible birthday present would you say that would be enough for you?”

To which Milo immediately replied,


Forging ahead, like a failed comedian who got no laugh but kept going regardless,

“Well, even though they’d have been happy with one present, these people got fourteen presents!”

Now that impressed him!

But wait, it subsequently occurred to me.  Even if this recent experience was far from the “Ideal Seder” of yesteryear, at least we were having a Seder, freely and openly, with a dozen assembled guests willing to participate.

Shouldn’t that have been enough for me?

Seems like, possibly – and admittedly cornily –

I had set out to teach Milo a lesson,

And had instead learned one myself.

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