Passover: the Master Storytelling Class for Parents

By Rabbi Justus Baird, Dean of Auburn Seminary

“I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt. Their cry before their taskmasters I have heard. Now I know their pains.” (Exodus 3:7) Thus begins the story of the Exodus that is retold by Jews around the world every year during the spring festival of Passover.

The message of the story is that God, working with Moses, rescued the Israelites from oppression. But there is another message, actually a master lesson about pedagogy, beyond the content of the story. The master lesson of the Passover ritual is that religious education and identity building begins with storytelling in the home.

Passover is high-impact and low-cost. It’s family-based and grassroots. Passover needs no professional support: If all the rabbis, educators, synagogue presidents and federation fundraisers got lost wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jews across the world would still celebrate Passover. More religious education programs should be more like Passover.

Passover is the quintessential example of good religious education: family-based learning. Armed with only a book, combined with memories from childhood, parents and grandparents use the tried-and-true methods of the four questions, the four children and storytelling to transmit Jewish tradition with no professionals in sight.

It shouldn’t be surprising to us that family-based religious education is so popular or so important. The Hebrew scriptures teach us in Deuteronomy 6:7, a passage Jews know as the shema prayer, v’shinantem levanekha, which could be translated as “impress [these teachings] upon your children.” This command is not directed at teachers, clergy or congregational boards. It’s directed at parents. Too few of us parents heed its call to pass along our tradition directly to our children and grandchildren, saying to ourselves, “I want a great teacher to teach my children about our faith!”

There are many barriers to family-based religious education. Some parents feel ignorant and believe that only clergy or experts should teach their kids. Parents are over-worked and have no extra time. Nuclear families, rather than extended families, are the norm, which means that fewer grandparents are around to help.

The story of Passover is a story of liberation from oppression to freedom. Passover is a reminder to faith communities to empower parents and grandparents to have the freedom to be effective transmitters of faith and tradition and to help them address the challenges of modern parenting. If the Israelites could successfully wander the desert for forty years and come out, we can overcome these barriers. Studies of faith formation in Jewish communities show that what happens in the home is one of, if not the most important predictor of religious identity formation later in life.

The Passover seder (ritual meal) is a classic form of DIY religion. The ancient rabbis encouraged storytelling when the rituals were being developed. But the biblical story of the Exodus itself already contains this instruction. Exodus 10:2 reads, “So that you will tell [the story] in the ears of your child, and your child’s child, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have placed among them; that you may know that I am the Lord.”

This is a clear instruction from on high about how to pass along faith and tradition: tell the story to your children. Jewish tradition improved on the concept: tell the story to your children, at home, with lots of fun and chaos, over a big meal. It’s OK to send kids to the classroom to learn about faith and religious tradition, but only after we have imprinted upon them years of memories of learning our story at home.

Tips: This portal from the Shusterman Foundation has links to helpful resources for making a Passover seder. Never been to a Passover seder? Drop a hint to any of your Jewish friends – something like, “I’ve always wanted to see what a Passover seder is like in someone’s home.”

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