Lost in the hoopla around Pesach is its status among the Jewish holidays. It's a festival. A Chag. Meaning that we are essentially commanded to be festive and experience serious unapologetic rejoicing. V'samachta b'chagecha! We are required to recite Hallel every day (and on seder night) as an expression of extreme praise toward the one who liberated us from the miserable harshness of slavery. There are endless reasons to let our despair define us the rest of the year, but on this festive occasion, we are commanded to lift our spirits. Even from a biblical perspective, Pesach is a (seven- or) eight-day raging party characterized by simplicity, spirited abundance and joyous celebration.
It starts with the seder. Contrary to Hebrew School wisdom, the point of this chag is not SIMPLY to tell the story, but rather to tell the story in a heightened state of joy. That is much harder than simply planning a meal and choosing a haggadah. The magic of Pesach, in most cases, doesn't happen by accident. You have to make some deliberate attempt, beyond the purchase of wine, to recognize the vibe you are trying to create and plan for it. Doing this for adults, children, guests and curmudgeonly relatives only underscores the challenge. But if we are truly interested in putting the festive back into festival, we have to commit to making it a priority.
Here are three quick planning tips for promoting a truly happy festivus in the holiday of our liberation.
1. Music and Ruach
A seder needs song. If not a formal song leader, at least someone confident to lead the songs. Although it can be difficult to ask, make sure there is at least one non-rhythmically challenged person at your seder who likes to sing and keep a beat. Put them in charge of a few early musical moments. Have sitting next to them the most enthusiastic, energetic, diving right in person at the seder egging them on and supporting the effort. Make space for musical moments to flourish early so they can be more spontaneous later. A good seder song or a rousing shehechiyanu can catch people off guard in a good way. Surprising people with unanticipated musical moments that invite participation is an important icebreaker. Seders tend to start off socially stiff. Nothing lubricates a crowd faster than fun, participatory, table pounding musical elements lead by the right person.
2. Game Plan for Children
Make your seder child-friendly, but NOT child-centered. Plan the two or three clusters of moments that you want full children participation. A set plan is a must that delineates time for child focused seder ritual and then lets them play in another room with supervision. Bring them back for ten plagues and dayenu. For an extreme fun crowd-pleasing moment, use small kosher marshmellows as hail during the plagues and everyone throw it at each other. Chaos is best when its well orchestrated. The singing, by the way, should NOT be measured by how much the kids sing. That is a losing battle. Rather their embarrassment level at how loud and fierce the adults are singing will be a strong indicator that your seder is hitting the right frequency.
3. After Dinner
A seder can literally fall apart after dinner. That is a shanda. Rabban Gamliel was wrong. The utterance of pesach, matza and maror do not a seder make. Rather, pesach, matza, maror and Chad Gadya. It is inevitable that people will leave the seder early. Ironically, a seder can have an unintended Exodus of its own before the third cup of wine if you don't plan for it. People lose steam. It's understandable. As Jay Michaelson wrote in The Forward last week, "I felt like a cook on the first night of Passover: exhausted before the Seder even begins." Were seder fatigue only to happen to the head cook, but everyone else was pumped to find the afikoman and bentch -- dayeinu. You, the seder planner, must be proactive to prevent the inevitable post-meal seder lethargy. And you cannot do it alone. You must plan to have a united front about re-starting the seder after dinner. Do not assume they are planning on staying, but rather invite your guests specifically to stay late. Do this directly and in advance. Make sure you have a solid enthusiastic core of people who are committed to finishing the seder. The best, most memorable and joyful moments of a seder are often near the end.
You may spend most of your time planning the menu and guest list, but when planning the actual seder, think about the tone you are trying to set. Are you interested in creating a buzz? The more you think about non-food in-seder details, the more likely you are to manifest the joyful spirit of the holiday. For best results, think about the in-seder element with someone else. Talk it out. Envision a best case scenario. Imagine the 90-year-old grandma busting out in song. Now think about what it will take to encourage that kind of space. How can you be inclusive, inviting, encouraging participation and enthusiasm? Much moreso if you put a little thought and planning into it.
Pesach has been referred, at least by one hagaddah, as a night of questions. Questions are of central importance in Judaism. Yet, this night is supposed to be different from all other nights. If that is that case, how are we going to take our seders up a notch this year? THAT'S THE QUESTION.
To read more from Reb Ezra, visit his website: www.RebEzraWeinberg.com.