As most of you are aware, the Jewish seder is both a religious ritual and a meal. It is a celebration of the liberation of the Jews from their captivity in Egypt and their flight, led by Moses, across the Red Sea. The modern seder is an elaborate affair, with a text, the Haggadah, that is read [in Hebrew at a serious seder, in English at the seders I have attended] in a formulaic manner, punctuated by songs, the ritual of the "afikomen" [a piece of matzoh that is hidden, and then searched for by the children at the seder, to be held hostage until the director of the seder buys it back, inasmuch as the service cannot proceed without it], and eventually, by a meal. It is intended to be a joyous affair, with a good deal of kibbitzing and joking and singing -- it is, after all, the celebration of a liberation.
The best seder I ever attended took place on Long Island at the home of young rabbi Waxman, son of old rabbi Waxman, who was at the table but not conducting the service. I was then a student at Harvard, and had just taken a course on the philosophy of Spinoza with the great scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson. It turned out that old rabbi Waxman knew Wolfson, and while the rest of the people at the table twiddled their thumbs and fumed quietly, waiting for the meal that was promised, I pressed the senior Waxman with questions, both about Wolfson and about the arcana of the interpretation of the Haggadah. [All of this, you understand, despite the fact that I was then, and am still, an atheist who has never even been bar mitzvah'd.]
A signal moment in the seder occurs when one of those in attendance asks the person conducting the service four ritual questions, each of which is preceded by the formula, "Wherefore is this night different from all other nights, for on this night we ..." [eat reclining, eat unleavened bread, etc.] Each question is answered by reference to a different feature of the flight from Egypt.
There is a tradition, at least in America, that the youngest boy present asks the four questions. [No girls needed to apply, although I imagine things have now changed.] Since the seder is typically an affair for family and close friends, it was not difficult to figure out which little boy would have the honor of asking the questions. In upper middle class Northeast families, it was quite common for this chosen one to be a fat-faced, petted, made much of little momma's boy dressed in a new little suit and tie and fussed over by a rather plump, preening, proud mother, who felt that the selection of her son to ask the four questions constituted a signal recognition of herself, as well as of her precious son.
Needless to say, regular boys hated this smug little brat, and would not themselves have been caught dead asking the four questions.
Whenever I see David Brooks on television, all I can think of is that little boy at a seder. This is, of course, an unkind and quite unfair thing to say. But I cannot help it.