The Pesach seder has helped to sustain our faith and reinforce our identity throughout the ages. Much of that has to do with the deliberate way that Chazal, our sages, set the seder up,
The three seder features we will look at all serve the same basic purpose: to enhance the sipur, the telling of the story of yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus. We can understand what that storytelling entails by contrasting it with the everyday mitzvah to simply remember the exodus (zechira). All a person has to do to fulfill that mitzvah of zechira is think for a moment about yetziat Mitzrayim. However, the storytelling (sipur) we are commanded to do at the seder is an entirely different matter. Chazal built a few things into the seder to make it a story fitting of the night of Pesach. At the seder, we relive the exodus. We imagine ourselves leaving Egypt and tell our families about it. We make it vivid with props like matzah and marror, and we express our thanks to Hashem for all that he’s done for us.
If you’ve been to a Seder before, you know that each one of those features helps make the seder uplifting. With the help of research from the field of positive psychology, we can understand why they work. Positive psychology is a field that focuses on how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled. Researchers in the field have identified a number of things that happier people do that contribute to their being happy. They found that if other people do more of those things, they will also experience a boost in positive emotions and wellbeing. As it turns out, our three uplifting features of the seder each utilize one of those happiness-boosting techniques.
Studies found that reminiscing about past events in one’s life helps people in a number of ways. It helps people to savor positive moments, increase self-esteem and overcome struggles in the present. Reminiscing also helps people to create a cohesive sense of identity. Unlike remembering, reminiscing is active, and it is often done together with other people. When college students, for example, takes pictures and other items with them to put in their dorm rooms, those things help them to adjust to the new environment by helping them reminisce more clearly about their positive memories from home.
Reminiscing is most effective when it’s done vividly, by focusing deeply on the events, or by using props like mementos. This is exactly what we do at the seder. The Gemara tells us that a people must see themselves as if they are presently leaving Egypt. When we use all of the visual and gustatory aids, we are helping to make our commemoration of that incredible event more vivid and more real, and consequently more powerful and uplifting of an experience. In our own lives, we can practice this by making time to remember positive events, focusing on as many details as possible, or using objects or pictures from the events. Going forward, we can try to make positive events more memorable by being mindful as they are happening (i.e., not experiencing them through a camera lens and a phone screen).
Gratitude and happiness are closely connected. Dr. Robert Emmons demonstrated that performing even small acts of gratitude can have significant impact on the person’s emotional and physical well-being. Gratitude makes people more optimistic and happier, and improves our ability to connect with others. Gratitude also makes us more altruistic and it decreases materialism and envy.
At the seder, the climax of sipur yetziat mitzrayim is the hallel before and after shulchan orech. There, after describing all the good Hashem did for us, we turn to Him directly and express our gratitude to him. One way to increase the level of gratitude in our own lives is by journaling. Simply write down a few things we are grateful for. This can be once a week, every few days, or every day. We can also express our gratitude for those things to God by mentioning in our tefilah. If that’s not your thing, then try paying more attention to things other people do that you take for granted and go out of your way to acknowledge them.
Sharing Positive Experiences
When things are tough, it’s nice to be able to tell someone about it. But sharing the good things that happen to us can give us a boost of positive emotions. Dr. Nathan Lambert found that the more a person talks about the good things that are happening to the people they are close with, the happier they feel and the more satisfied they are with life. Even within one particular day the more someone shares their happiness with someone else, the happier and more satisfied they will be on that day. In addition, when people shared positive things with someone else, and the other person listened with interest or excitement, that also improved the relationship between those people.
If we can see ourselves leaving Egypt on the seder night, as we are meant to, and the story we tell is our own story, then the entire seder can give us that same boost and make the seder even more uplifting. In our own lives, this is simple to do. You don’t have to brag or be insensitive, but don’t keep your joy to yourself. This doesn’t have to be about huge things. Finding the little things to share can be part of the exercise.
The sipur yetziat Mitzrayim that we do at the seder is an observance that includes reminiscence, gratitude and sharing positive experience. Each of those three things is something that, according to psychology researchers, can improve our emotional well-being and life satisfaction. If we are mindful and engaged in the seder, then those things will help make it an uplifting and meaningful experience that we can carry with us throughout the year.
Dr. Bin Goldman is a clinical psychologist with offices in Teaneck and on the Upper West Side. He is also Visiting Scholar and Clinical Psychology Supervisor at Teachers College at Columbia University.
By Dr. Bin Goldman