Around the seder table: from generation to generation

By Dayle Friedman, Jewish Exponent

On seder night, many of us will return home. Maybe not home to the house in which we grew up, but home to our extended family or to our family of choice. We will come back once again to the same scene — the familiar aroma of matzah ball soup, a gleaming seder plate and dear ones arrayed around the table. We will sing, recite familiar words and perform rituals that instantly take us back to all the seder nights we have shared in the past.

As we gaze around the table, though, we will see that all is not the same. Sadly, some people who have long graced these gatherings are missing, as their lives have ended in the year we’ve been apart. New little ones and spouses have joined. And among the returnees, we see that time has passed.

With so many of us living into our 80s and 90s, we can easily have four generations at our seder table. Since last year, children have suddenly grown up, the middle generations are sprouting gray hairs or wearing glasses, and the older generation is showing the passage of time — perhaps bearing new wrinkles or suntans, signs of physical struggles or new, post-retirement adventures.

The fundamental mitzvah, or obligation, of the seder is “v’higad’ta livincha” — you shall tell your children on that day. This observance is, at its core, the enactment of the chain of Jewish tradition. Parents tell children our people’s story of enslavement and liberation, of despair and hope, so that all of us will carry the story with us, so that we will be inspired to live out its teachings of justice, of loyalty and of freedom.

While the obligation of Haggadah-telling is directed toward parents, it turns out that grandparents and great-grandparents — or their contemporaries — have much to contribute to this transmission. In cultures throughout time, including ours, it is the elders who can best convey tradition to the youth. 

Older adults have much to draw on — abundant seder and Passover observances, to be sure, but also life experiences that shed light on the themes of the holiday: oppression, limitation, liberation, hope, justice.

We can learn from their explicit telling, and also from their implicit telling — the way they live and have overcome challenges, have stood tall in who they are, or have fallen and striven to get up again. Our connection to wisdom is infinitely enriched by elders — at the seder and whenever we take time to attend to their stories and insights.

At the seder, we open the door to Elijah the prophet. Elijah represents the promise of redemption, when all the world will be released from intolerance, injustice and war. He also represents a narrower, profoundly personal hope. He will, we are told, turn the hearts of parents toward children, and the hearts of children toward parents.

At the seder, we are reminded that we can deepen and heal our relationships across the generations as we all grow older.

When we are young adults, coming back to the seder may make us aware of what we criticize in our parents, the ways that we are struggling to define ourselves. As we learn and change, and become more settled in ourselves, we can redefine our relationships with parents and older relatives.

One gift of today’s extended longevity is the opportunity to come to new understanding, healing and closeness in our relationships with parents and elders. We can, with work, grow into humility, admitting and accepting our own and our elders’ imperfections.

Knowing that the time we have together is not limitless can spur us to let go of grievances and to cherish one another in fresh and lovely ways. The seder can open our hearts and deepen connection across the generations of our families and communities.

The Haggadah tells us “bichol dor v’dor,” in every generation we are each obligated to see ourselves as if we personally emerged out from mitzrayim, the narrow place. The narrative of the Exodus is our people’s collective story, but it is also our individual one as well. Each of us has experienced or will yet face narrow straits of discouragement, disappointment and loss. Each of us knows what it is like to feel released, to recover hope and ambition, to head toward our own Promised Land.

The elders at our seder table can point the way for us. They can remind us of resilience, for they have faced crisis, survived loss and endured change. They can be models of grit and of discovering the sweet vistas of wide open spaces of possibility after feeling that all was lost.

We have only to ask and to listen, to be inspired and encouraged. With our elders as inspiring living examples, we can all emerge in freedom from our narrow places. We can join together to sing songs of hope, of joy and of praise.

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