I grew up in a secular interfaith household where my parents boiled down all the holidays to their celebratory essences. Christmas was a tree, stockings, and presents. For Easter, my sister and I dyed eggs and the “Easter Bunny” left baskets filled with chocolate and jelly beans. On Hanukkah we lit the menorah (forgetting some nights), sang songs, and ate chocolate gelt. The winning combination of candy and gifts ensured that these were enjoyable holidays for us as kids.
But Passover was different. As a heavily ritualistic holiday that is fundamentally about the journey from slavery to freedom, Passover is hard to corrupt. Even my atheist dad got into the spirit of the holiday, although the well-worn kid’s haggadah that he used took all of 10 minutes to read. Even then, we skipped most of the gruesome plagues and jumped ahead to the singing and food.
Over the years, Passover has become my favorite holiday, and now that I have kids, it’s even more so. Passover has a quietly radical approach to pedagogy and transmission of values and ethics that you don’t need to be religiously observant to appreciate. Here are three of the most important messages that Passover has for kids.
1. Their questions and participation are not only valued, but are expected
The seder and accompanying haggadah require that children participate in the retelling of the story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. In fact, at the beginning of the seder the youngest child at the table is called on to ask the “Four Questions,” about why the Passover night is different from all other nights of the year.
In our house, we pass around the haggadah during the seder so that each person can tell a part of the story. We also take turns reading about each of the plagues, which is always a favorite part of the haggadah. This keeps them engaged, but also reinforces the expectation and value of their participation.
2. Appreciation for what they have, and empathy for the plight of others
Putting themselves in the shoes of an enslaved people won’t come easy for most kids. And yet, one of the imperatives of Passover is that participants experience the seder as if they were slaves in Egypt. We eat matzah because Jews didn’t have time to bake bread before they fled. Horseradish reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, while bitter herbs dipped in salt water approximate the tears of our ancestors, and haroset symbolizes the mortar Jewish slaves used to build pyramids.
But using food as a proxy for the experience of slavery always felt a bit unsatisfying to me, so this year, I took our kids to an exhibit on Ancient Egypt in which they attempted to pull a block similar to the ones used to build the pyramids. As they grunted and struggled with the effort, we talked about how it must have felt to do this same action, thousands of time over, for hours a day under the hot sun. It gave them a material and tangible feel for one significant experience of Jews under slavery.
3. Real-life social problems are messy and complex
Taken at face value, the story of Passover is one of good against evil, the oppressed triumphing over the oppressor. But the actual story is much more complicated. When Pharaoh refused to free the Jews, God inflicted a series of plagues on the Egyptian people, each one more gruesome than the previous one. The final one—which broke Pharaoh’s resolve—was sending the Angel of Death to kill each firstborn Egyptian boy in every household across Egypt. Many children recoil from the severity of this punishment. Was this the right punishment, they wonder? Or did it go to far?
In our family, and especially as our kids get older, we take the opportunity to connect the story to broader questions about fairness, and how to achieve a more just society at home or around the world. Some contemporary seder companions are written with social justice in mind, and it’s easy to adapt these themes to make them kid-friendly. Visible problems like homelessness and the environment are easy to talk about with younger kids, while older kids can dig into complex topics like modern-day slavery. This year, we’re talking about child slavery on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast and what we can do to help eradicate it.
As our kids grow, Passover’s meaning grows with them. By participating in this ritual year after year, they learn the value of multi-generational and communal storytelling, the importance of questioning narratives, and to believe in the imperative to change the world.