03/31/2015 01:45 pm ET Updated May 31, 2015

Renewing Our Citizenship: Questions, Stories, and the Passover Seder

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Here's an aphorism you're likely to hear this time of year: 'The Passover seder is the longest-running symposium on the meaning of freedom in the history of the world.' That's true, but it's insufficient. Because the seder isn't just an intellectual exercise, though many of us delight in the life of the mind on this night. And it isn't a night of nostalgia, though for many this night invokes powerful memories of childhood.

At its core, I would suggest that seder night is our annual practice of renewing our citizenship in the Jewish people, and thereby renewing the Jewish people itself. And in that sense, it is a vital paradigm not only for Jews, but for our larger American and human communities.

Citizenship is a word we need to reclaim. Today we largely use it in connection with debates about immigration, which are linked to discussions about rights and entitlements. But this is only one part of citizenship. Another part has to do with our responsibility for other citizens, and for the civilization we share.

In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, educator and activist Parker Palmer defines the term this way: "Citizenship is a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials I could never provide for myself." Palmer's definition focuses on a simultaneous sense of both radical humility and profound solidarity toward one's fellow citizens, which is not only intellectual, but bodily and spiritual.

When we develop what Alexis de Tocqueville called the habits of the heart of citizenship in a democracy, we cultivate the "way of being in the world," that Palmer is talking about. Such an ethos of responsibility must be developed and maintained through educational and social processes that both form and sustain us. It has to be nurtured, shaped, and tended to -- not only when we're children, but throughout our lives.

How does that kind of citizenship formation happen? On its most basic level, it happens when we actively compose the story of our own lives in genuine conversation with the story of our fellow citizens, our history, and our future. And that is precisely what the seder is meant to do.

Palmer identifies five habits of the heart as essential to sustaining a democracy, each of which forms a core element animating the seder:

  • We must understand that we are all in this together. We all went out from Egypt, and had our ancestors not been liberated, we too would be slaves to Pharaoh.
  • We must develop an appreciation of the value of 'otherness.' Tonight we welcome the stranger to our table, for we were strangers in Egypt.
  • We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. The Haggadah is replete with multiple answers, multiple narratives, multiple ways of telling our story. This is a night of holding tensions.
  • We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency. We are commanded on seder night to make this story our own, to see ourselves as personally leaving Egypt.
  • We must strengthen our capacity to create community. Even the very first seder in Egypt was commanded to be experienced not as individuals and not as a nation, but with neighbors in our homes.

On seder night, we narrate our own story in conversation with the story of the others who are present -- physically at our seder table, and more broadly in our memories and imaginations. We not only take in the story; we not only ingest the story (by eating the symbolic foods of the night); we ultimately make that story our own.

Yet there's an additional and crucial dimension to note here about how that story-weaving happens. The rabbis of the Talmud realized that it wasn't enough to tell the story; rather, the story must be told in answer to a question. Even if you're having a seder by yourself, the rabbis instruct that you must still ask a question to open the evening of storytelling.

Why this requirement? Because the ability to ask good questions, and then to have genuine conversations about them, is the root of citizenship.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that students who ask their own questions about their learning ultimately show higher levels of not only content mastery, but overall engagement and participation. That is, students who ask their own questions develop a deeper sense of citizenship in the classroom community, with an understanding of both the right to ask questions, and the responsibility to help themselves and others work on their own questions and the questions they (and we) share as a community. (My thanks to Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein of the Right Question Institute for these insights.)

So on seder night, it isn't enough simply to imbibe the story of the ancient Israelites; we have to make their story our own. And the way we do that is through asking our own questions of the story, and imagining ourselves into the community across time and space who have asked, are asking, and will ask their questions of that story too.

To return to the beginning: The seder is the world's longest-running symposium on freedom. But more than that, the seder is the world's longest-running community-weaving, citizenship-renewing experience. The seder reminds us--because we need reminding--that citizenship is not only about important individual rights, but also our shared stories, relationships, commitments, and mutual responsibility. The seder invites and challenges us to understand ourselves, individually and collectively, as part of a timeless story extending back millennia to ancient Egypt, and forward to a future of redemption, freedom, and responsible citizenship for all.