Rivy Poupko Kletenik, Jewish Sound Columnist
There’s no getting away from it. Pesach is up next. I’ve been known to embrace the “Pesach denial attitude” in past years — closing my eyes as I pass the Passover aisle in the supermarket, delicately stepping away from the over-the-top, gung-ho Passover preparers’ braggadocio around how many briskets are in their freezers and the like. This year, however, I vow to be on top of things! First up? The seder — after all, is it not ultimately about creating a meaningful experience for family and guests? Any suggestions beyond place settings and tchotchkes? I am looking for a focus, a central theme that will live on in the minds of all seder participants long after the taste of matzoh has dissipated, the dishes have been put away, and the brisket has been forgotten.
Let’s do it! It is a terrific idea to, as “Seven Habits” fans, myself among them, would put it: “Begin with the end in mind!” (See Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” if this reference is lost on you.) Given that the desired outcome is to have ideas and meaning last for our guests while animating their consciousness into the future, it behooves us to do some orchestration behind the scenes and set ourselves up for success by doing the advance prep work. The time to start is now.
It’s essential to delve into the text of the Hagaddah and probe the narrative for themes. Despite the outward impression — buoyed by the inevitable need to continually get up from the seder table to check on the kids, the oven, the soup, the guests, the wine, the dessert — the Hagaddah is not actually a hodgepodge of arbitrary paragraphs strung together. It is carefully arranged, hence seder! Order! This thread of teachings tells a story, guiding us along till we get to the punchline, the “Big idea,” if you will, of the evening and, most assuredly, of our people’s central narrative. It is not the popular, condensed, distilled, cynical “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” trope of comic renown; though that does have a particular pretty punch to it.
The central theme of the seder is… wait for it…gratitude. After establishing that it’s our duty to tell the story of the Exodus — how, when, and to whom — we can get into it, telling the story of our people reaching all the way back from Abraham to the enslavement and the miraculous special effects of the redemption. Notice the emphatic conclusion of the narrative build-up is: “Thus it is our duty to thank, to laud, to praise, to glorify, to exalt, to adore, to bless, to elevate, to acclaim the One who did all these miracles for our ancestors and for us.” Notice the nine expressions of gratitude here. We get ready to tell the story, we tell the story, and then we dramatically conclude, cup of wine in hand, with words of thanks — we sing two paragraphs of Hallel, Psalms of praise, and then eat the meal. The point of it all? Gratitude and thankfulness.
Interestingly, the latest happiness gurus are all about gratitude. Dr. Tal Ben Shachar, Harvard professor and founder of the Maytiv Institute for Positive Psychology in Herzliya, Israel, a foundation dedicated to helping people be happy, teaches there are six keys to happiness:
1. Set goals
2. Give and help others
3. Adopt an optimistic outlook
4. Identify role models
5. Be strengths-focused — see the good!
6. Commit to exercise three times a week for at least 30 minutes.
Regarding the achievement of these goals, he teaches that gratitude is the critical underpinning, and essential to adopting an optimistic outlook. Here is his suggestion:
There are treasures of happiness all around us and within us. The problem is that we only appreciate them when something terrible happens. Usually when we become sick, we appreciate our health. When we lose someone dear to us, we appreciate our life. And we don’t need to wait. If we cultivate the habit of gratitude we can significantly increase our levels of happiness. So, for example, research shows that people who keep a gratitude journal, who each night before going to sleep write at least five things for which they are grateful, big things or little things, are happier, more optimistic, more successful, more likely to achieve their goals, physically healthier; it actually strengthens our immune system, and are more generous and benevolent toward others. This is an intervention that takes three minutes a day with significant positive ramifications.
There you have it. Our Hagaddah is our Gratitude Journal. We are the AppreciatioNation and seder night is our Independence Day! The upbeat song “Dayenu” is a centerpiece, an ultimate national proclamation of gratitude, dayenu meaning, “it would have been enough.”
In his Hagaddah, Chief Rabbi Emeritus Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains it this way:
This series of praises with the refrain, Dayenu, enumerates the kindnesses of God to His people on the long journey from slavery to freedom. The number fifteen — the acts the poem enumerates — has a deep association with thanksgiving, reminding us of the fifteen Psalms which bear the title Shir Ha’maalot, “A Song of Degrees” and the fifteen steps in the Temple on which the Levites stood as they sang to God…. It is as if the poet were saying; where our [ancestors in the desert] complained, let us give thanks…. As Hegel points out, slavery gives rise to a culture of resentiment, a generalized discontent, and the Israelites were newly released slaves. One of the signs of freedom is the capacity for gratitude. Only as person can thank with a full heart.
The suggestion for a focused seder this year? You might highlight moments of gratitude throughout the seder: Gratitude for four different kinds of children, thankfulness for being able to live in freedom and be able to ask four questions, and even appreciation for the ability to raise our glasses four times! Why not embrace the theme of gratitude throughout the evening by encouraging participants to express their own personal gratitude. Hassidic sages were known to go quickly through the set text of the Hagaddah and then move on to their own personal stories of redemption so as to arrive at genuine gratitude. The sky’s the limit, we have all night — let’s make this night different from all others and start a thank-you movement!
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.