The Seder is replete with strange customs and rituals to encourage questions that we answer with stories.
But why don’t we just tell the story?
R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that the year-round mitzvah of remembering our history is not enough on Seder night. The goal is of the Seder is not simple history communication and knowledge acquisition; the goal is engagement, and the vehicle for engagement is questions – וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the Hebrew words for inheritance – נַחֲלָה / יְרוּשָׁה – have two very different meanings. The root נחל means a river that naturally flows, and the root רשת is the word for conquest or capture.
R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches the obvious truth that our tradition will not flow like a river – we cannot make the grave error of assuming our children will just follow their heritage. Tradition is secured through conquest because something you put energy into is earned. Questions are central to the Seder, because questions are the vehicle to transmit memory and identity. By asking questions, the children make what is ours into theirs too.
When the wise son asks what the point of it all is, we answer that we don’t eat anything after the Korban Pesach; which Rav Kook allegorizes to mean that the taste of our traditions should linger.
We all grew up sharing a table with extended families, and we don’t just tell stories. We taste the strange foods, the matzah, maror, and charoses, talking about what it means to be free, singing songs to celebrate all our blessings. Everyone remembers being the one to ask the four questions and stealing the afikoman. And as we grow up, we become the one to answer the questions, and it’s our afikoman getting stolen. The Seder’s enduring power is its way of transmitting our memory and identity across generations.
That’s the power of ritual, simple things we do as children because it’s fun, and as adults, because we know that our identity is one of the most precious things we can pass on.
We can’t just tell stories at the Seder because it would miss the point entirely. The Seder rituals are the things we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals. Accordingly, it should be no surprise that more people go to a Seder than to shul on Yom Kippur.