Trauma at the Seder Table

by | Mar 13, 2023 | Aging Posts, Blog, Passover

With the “good dishes” gracing the table, wine glasses gleaming and places set for 26 guests, the annual Passover seder was, as PopPop pronounced, “ready for prime time.” But in seconds the tranquility of the evening was disturbed by the shrieks of the two youngest granddaughters.

“It’s my turn to put the parsley on the plates,” said granddaughter Keeley.

“Uh Uh, No way. That’s the job I always do,” was granddaughter Naomi’s response.

“Well, I’m in charge of the parsley this year!” Keeley yelled.

“No way.” Naomi shot back. The girls continued what was escalating into a big fight until Bubby intervened.

“Girls, Girls, this year like we always do, we’ll be dipping parsley in salt water but this year we have a Sefardic family joining us so we’ll be dipping celery in vinegar as well. There’s no need to fight. You both have jobs to do.”

That’s when PopPop looked up from his I Pad and commented, “I wish all of our family quarrels could be resolved so easily. Some of our seder dinners turned into battle grounds. Frankly I don’t look forward to family gatherings so much anymore.”

Bubby agreed. “Remember last Passover. When we got to the Ten Plagues and our son wanted to go around the table a second time to list modern day plagues …”

“Oy vey, what a mess! When politics got into the mix we almost had a fistfight at the table! What’s it going to be like this year?”

Bubby and PopPop’s concerns are not unique. In recent years, controversy, particularly political concerns, have dominated traditional family gatherings – so much so that sociology and psychology experts have devoted hours of counseling time and pages in professional journals to the issue of contention around the family table.

According the online news service, Health Partners, “Scientific research shows that we need healthy relationships in order to be in good health,” and specifically humans need social support – that special connection with other people “who make you feel loved, heard and cared about.” However when social support is damaged or even absent, family gatherings, like Easter dinner or the Passover seder can deteriorate into a battleground where old grievances surface, where generational differences provoke misunderstandings and where differing values and opinions can ignite conflict.

Just ask Andrea M. Darcy, whose article “How to Survive a Family Gathering Emotionally Intact,” appeared recently (January 2023) on the Harley Therapy Mental Health Blog. Thanks to Ms. Darcy her counseling initiatives have resulted in seven steps to diffuse negativity when families come together.

1) “Show Up Neutral” – Ms. Darcy cautions that even “If there are any lingering disagreements between you and your family members and you show up “charged”, with either anxiety, anger, or righteousness,” you have created fertile ground for having a difficult time.

2) “Don’t create triangles.” Darcy explains that “triangles” is a group dynamics term that “refers to what happens when two people disagree, and one person pulls a third bystander into the situation … that creates an “us against them,” energy that can snowball into a full blown argument.” Instead Darcy advises that “There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with someone in your family. But disagree by yourself. “

3) “Lower your expectations.” Says Darcy, emphasizing that “The less you expect from a family gathering, the more likely you are to enjoy yourself.”

4)“Stop judging yourself.” Ms. Darcy offers the example of the daughter who beat herself up for snapping at her father after he began his usual pattern of hurtful teasing. Alternately it is less painful to hold reasonable expectations of your family and of yourself, acknowledging that no gathering is perfect.

5) “Stick to one time zone,” Says Ms. Darcy, who emphasizes the obvious when she says, “The problem with families is that we all go way, way back. And this means we can spend every family gathering noticing what our family members do wrong ‘just like always.” A focus on the present rather than past annoyances allows family members to ignore past hurts and slights and enjoy the present moment as best they can.

6) “Save it for Later.” Is Ms. Darcy’s advice regarding the cumulative nature of years of family turmoil. She reminds us that the family gathering is rarely the place to sort out lingering issues “once and for all.” For serious issues Darcy recommends professional support.

7) “When in doubt, use your ears.” Darcy believes that listening is key and notes that listening is perhaps the most underrated way to avoid overacting and thus o improve relationships. Rather than nodding one’s head in agreement while thinking about a million other unrelated issues, actively listening requires staying in the “now,” and reflecting back certain key phrases and pointed comments that demonstrate that the other person has been heard and understood.

Where families are concerned, conflict is a given. In fact our Jewish traditions acknowledge that it is normal for family members disagree. As a midrash emphasizes, “Even a father and son, when they sit to study Torah together become enemies to one another. But they do not move from there until they have become beloved to one another.” Here’s hoping that none of us leaves the seder table until we’ve reestablished respect, compassion and the bonds of love.

NOTE: Link to the complete article by Andrea Darcey: CLICK HERE

For ten years Rabbi Barbara Aiello served the Aviva Campus for Senior Life as resident rabbi. Her most popular columns are now published in her new book, “Aging Jewishly,” available on Amazon books. Rabbi Barbara now lives and works in Italy where she is rabbi of Italy’s first Reconstructionist synagogue. Contact her at