Around this time of year I often find myself fielding questions about what haggadah to use, and how families can spice up their Seder rituals at home. There are so many choices these days, and the answer may depend on who will be at your Seder, the age of the children, and the relative value you place on nostalgia vs creativity or innovation, among other factors.
But the one element that I have found to be a game-changer when it comes to how Seder night is experienced is an element that is often completely overlooked: Logistics and lay-out. This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial. While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table. Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too. At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent. Some homes are large enough to move people to tables for the meal, but going for a more informal buffet and continuing to eat in the same space as you’ve gathered for the ritual can be just as good an option too.
In truth, while I highlight logistics and layout as the game-changer because it is so often not even considered as a player in the creation of a great Seder, there is another element to our family Seder that has been just as significant a game-changer in the Passover experience. At our Seder, we have taken to inserting different freedom-related themes each year, as we invite guests to add their own midrashim – in the form of news articles, photos, videos, and more. In our home we compile these images into a powerpoint presentation ahead of time and project the images for all to see and to discuss during the Seder, but a household that doesn’t want to use technology in this way on a festival night can achieve the same kind by simply handing around printed copies. And so, when we get to the maggid section of the Seder (the telling of the story), we often depart from the Rabbis’ retellings from centuries ago embedded in the pages of our various haggadot. In each generation we must experience the exodus from Egypt as if it were our personal experience. When we add our own stories and images, we can dramatically engage each other in meaningful conversations about the nature of freedom that can be viscerally felt at a deeper level.
Take a look at my posting on Maggid 2.0 where I reported on our first year of taking this approach at our 2011 Seder, for an example of this visually-rich and conversation-stimulating approach to Passover.
Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!
Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.
But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.
So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?
It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.
In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.
While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:
[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.
And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”
So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.
Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating. According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.
So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.
And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace. Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.
So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.
Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.
So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.
(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses.)
For artists and writers, their creativity is their livelihood. The ideas that sprout from their heads are what put bread on the table and rent checks and mortgage payments in the mail. But even more crucially, artists and writers bring themselves into their creation, so when someone is plagiarized, it’s not just stealing money – it’s almost like stealing a very part of who they are.
And yet once someone’s words are now out in the world, how much do those words become public domain for anyone to use? In a world where we are not only consumers, but producers, where does borrowing end and plagiarism begin?
That’s a question that Malcolm Gladwell raises in an essay called “Something Borrowed.” The 2004 Broadway play “Frozen” is, in large part, about a psychiatrist who studies serial killers. And nearly 675 words were taken almost directly from a 1997 New Yorker article entitled “Damaged” that Gladwell himself had written. And he asks – is plagiarism the same thing as stealing?
As he says:
“Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one…[and] plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from other historians, she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fired the next day.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 225-226)
But that idea–that plagiarism is simply stealing–assumes that we own the words we speak. Yet once we have written something down, or created a piece of music, or painted a picture, it now becomes open for anyone to enjoy, to learn from, and to be inspired by. Ideas are not like physical objects–they naturally get expanded upon, interpreted, and used in other forms. So how much do we “own” the words we speak?
The Importance of Proper Attribution
If we do “own” the words we speak, then we need to make sure that the right people get the credit they deserve. And the Rabbis of the Talmud were close to obsessed with giving proper attribution to ideas and quotes. That’s why so many Jewish texts start by saying, “Rabbi So-and-So said in the name of Rabbi Such-and-Such…” But why are the Rabbis so concerned with giving proper attribution?
There are a few reasons. Pirkei Avot (6:6) tells us that “if you say something in the name of the person who originally said it, you are bringing redemption to the world.” The Mishnah and the Talmud were originally transmitted orally (that’s why it’s sometimes called the “Oral Torah”), and so there was no physical written record of who had said what. By ensuring a level of respect to those who came before, the Rabbis were also making sure that quotes, ideas and laws were handed down faithfully, and that some renegade Rabbi wasn’t making things up as he went along.
But I think there is another reasons, as well. The way God created the world was through speech – “‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Our words are physical objects, because words create worlds. So if it was important not to steal people’s property, it was equally important not to steal their ideas, either.
Into the Public Domain
And yet the Rabbis also realized that there is a public domain, where our ideas might take on a life of their own. There is a classic story in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), where the Rabbis were arguing over whether a certain type of oven was kosher.One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, tried to prove that he was right by having God perform miracles: “If I’m right, let this carob tree prove it!”, he said, and the carob tree uprooted its branches and moved. “If I’m right, let this river prove it!”, and the river started to flow backwards. But none of the other Rabbis were convinced by the miracles.Eventually, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I’m right, let God Himself prove it!” At that moment, a heavenly voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!”
You would think this would have ended the matter. You would think that within the Rabbinic mindset, they would have said, “God gave the Torah, so God must know who has the right interpretation of it. And clearly, Rabbi Eliezer does. End of story.”
Instead, Rabbi Joshua stood up and said, “‘The Torah is not in heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice.”
“We don’t listen to God any more, since the Torah is now ours,” Rabbi Joshua is saying. Notice that here the Rabbis weren’t arguing over whether Rabbi Eliezer was right or not. What they seem to be saying was that once God gave the Torah, it was now in the Rabbis’ hands to interpret it. Once the Torah was given to the people of Israel, it became theirs to own, and no longer simply God’s.
Who Owns Our Words?
So we face a tension about how ideas live in the world. On the one hand, people deserve credit if they come up with new thoughts. On the other hand, once the ideas are out there, no one truly “owns” them any more – anyone can access or use them.
As Gladwell reminds us, words do not “have a virgin birth and an eternal life” – there is a “chain of influence.” (243) So we have two-fold responsibility when it comes to attribution. First, as much as we can, we need to give credit where credit is due. Since there is nothing physical in the words we speak, it is that much more important to honor those who have created their works. On the other hand, we also have to remember that our own words quickly become public and owned by all.
The Rabbis are a perfect example of how to live out both sides of this obligation. Rabbi Joshua’s statement that “The Torah is not in heaven” implies that the greatest honor we can give the Torah is to help it become a living document. We build on what has come before, and we hope that others will build on afterwards.
So for our own ideas, we need first to remember that we build on the past. But if we think about our ideas as alive, then what greater honor can there be than having our words inspire someone else to expand on what we have created?