The Seder is replete with strange customs and rituals to encourage questions that we answer with stories.
But why don’t we just read the story?
Aside from the fact that the story is incredibly long, R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that the perpetual mitzvah of remembering the Exodus is not enough on Seder night; Seder night is not a history lesson. The Haggadah’s goal is engagement, the vehicle for which 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 two Hebrew words for inheritance have very different meanings – נַחֲלָה / יְרוּשָׁה. The root נחל means a flowing river, and the root רשת means conquest or capture, as in מורשה קהלת יעקב.
R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tradition is not inherited the way a river flows – we cannot make the grave error of assuming our children will just follow their heritage. Tradition is an inheritance secured through conquest because when you invest in your learning, you have earned and acquired your knowledge. Children and questions are central to the Seder because through their questions, they make what is ours into theirs.
When the wise son asks what the point of it all is, we answer that we don’t eat anything after the Korban Pesach. Rav Kook understands this as an allegory; let your children experience the lingering aftertaste of our traditions, don’t dilute them.
We all grew up sharing a table with extended families, and we don’t just tell stories. We taste the strange foods, the Matza, Maror, and Charoses, talk about what it means to be free, and sing songs to celebrate our blessings. Everyone remembers being the one to ask the four questions and steal the afikoman. As we grow up, we become the ones to answer the questions, and it’s our afikoman getting taken. The Seder’s enduring power is its way of transmitting our memory and identity across generations. It should be no surprise that more people go to a Seder than to shul on Yom Kippur.
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, that would miss the point entirely. Seder night is about what we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals.