A Conscious Way to Celebrate Passover
Passover 2017Parenting for Today

A Conscious Way to Celebrate Passover

The festival of freedom is the perfect time to learn that there's a little bit of all four sons in each of us.

Dena Schusterman

Dena Schusterman is a founder of Chabad Intown, a Jewish educator, and a founding director of both the Intown Jewish Preschool (intownjewishpreschool.org) and the Intown Hebrew School. She and her husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, are native Californians living in Atlanta for 20 years with their eight children.

Kitah Daled-Hey at Intown Jewish Preschool is ready for Pesach. (Photo by Adam Koplan)
Kitah Daled-Hey at Intown Jewish Preschool is ready for Pesach. (Photo by Adam Koplan)

Passover is fast approaching, and I am overwhelmed by how much work goes into preparing for this weeklong holiday. The days might be long, but the years are short, and time doesn’t stop for my procrastination and ruminations.

As I bury my head in denial about having to clean out every bookshelf, shake off each book, get to the bottom of the toy bins, and turn over our entire kitchen to be kosher for Passover, I must remind myself that dust is not the forbidden chametz (leavened foods), and my children are not the sacrificial lambs to be offered at the altar of over-the-top meticulous Passover observance.

For those unfamiliar with Passover, it is ironically the holiday in which we are commanded to celebrate personal freedom — “In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt” (Pesachim 116b) — while veritably enslaving ourselves to a chametz-free home, our newly picky (what do my carb lovers eat now?) eaters, and cooking for the masses at seder.

Educators have long known about this paradoxical nature of truths. Becky A. Bailey, in her book “Building Resilient Classrooms Through the Method of Conscious Discipline,” points out several paradoxes:

  • Focusing on the problem prevents finding a solution.
  • The child who creates distance is desperate for connection.
  • Limits or boundaries create personal freedom.
  • Power comes from choice, not force.

The staff and I at the Intown Jewish Preschool have been studying the Conscious Discipline method, and we have been implementing it in our classrooms. What is most exciting to me is how similar Conscious Discipline’s empirical conclusions are to the way in which the Torah thinks, including the multiple themes of Passover.

It is common to recognize how much the seder relates to children, but I would go so far as to say it also sets an example for progressive education. How so?

The seder, with its matzah, four cups of wine and maror, is the central practice of the holiday, and it is all about the kids.

In a good way.

We are all somebody’s child. So the seder engages the adult-child as well.

It is almost as if the entire setup of the seder is in collaboration with Professor Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligence.

While participating in the seder, we go about creating space for each type of learner to be an active participant.

There is the sensory feel of the crunchy and bumpy matzah and the kinesthetic activity of pouring wine as each of the 10 plagues is mentioned. The haggadah itself is a treasure for the linguist, as the pivotal moment of the whole seder is the retelling of the Exodus story.

So for me, as a mom and educator, dayenu.

But there is more.

While there are many modern lessons to be taken from the ancient practices of the seder and the Passover theme of free choice, the one that struck me deeply was about parenting and educating our children today.

There’s a Chinese proverb: “Do not confine your child to your own learning, for they were born in another time.”

There are four well-known sons (or daughters) named in the haggadah: the righteous one, the wicked one, the simple one and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask.

In recent years, we added a fifth: the one who doesn’t even know it is Passover, so he doesn’t show up for the seder.

Do you know that Jewish son or daughter? Reach out and invite him or her to your seder.

While we can tease-apart each proverbial child and figure out the root cause of the learned or inherent behaviors, there is an interpretation that says we all represent each of these children.

We show up in our lives personifying a different “son” (or daughter), depending on the situation and depending on our experiences (or, as Becky Bailey calls it, our preprogrammed CD-ROM).

We may know people who always play the part of the wise daughter or the righteous son. And, sadly, we know someone who is consistently the bully, naughty, I-will-rip-my-hair-out-because-of-you wicked one. A good parent or educator knows that even this child is good, deep down.

Most of us are not consistently any one way, but we go through phases of being: wise, rebellious, simplistic and utterly lost (all on a typical Sunday afternoon, in line at Trader Joe’s).

What is an adult to do? If I am not in control of myself, how can I expect my children to get it together? We struggle to be outstanding parents while nurturing our children to reach their own potential.

“Be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi said.

Bailey and her Conscious Discipline method encourage adults and children to move away from reacting to our fast-paced world in an emotional and impulsive state. Instead, we need to approach the world in a calculated and thoughtful state.

When we function without consciousness, we are knee-jerk and powerless, basically enslaved to the actions of others: “She made me”; “I had to.”

But when we function with consciousness, we are able to pause and formulate an appropriate response using our G-d-given free choice. This response will typically be based on our values and beliefs. In contrast, when we are disconnected, we are emotional and impulsive without any consideration of consequences.

Indeed, the slavery we might feel toward this holiday, the daily grind and the errant behaviors of our children can all be managed through our own self-work. As the adults, it is our responsibility to help shift feelings of loss of control and helplessness to a sense of competence and willpower.

So here goes. I am excited to get my house sparkly clean. I am grateful to be able to cook healthy food for my beloved family and community. I adore celebrating our Jewish holidays with all the quirky traditions, and I am fortunate to live at a time when my Jewish observance is visible and I can share the Torah’s life lessons.

Happy Pesach!

Dena Schusterman is a mother of eight, a wife, the rebbetzin of Chabad Intown and the executive director of the Intown Jewish Preschool.

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