In a short time, during the holiday of Passover, we will celebrate the Exodus of the enslaved Israelites from Egypt. We will retell an enduring story about the Jewish people’s quintessential quest for freedom and redemption. It’s a story that has brought solace and a sense of promise to Jewish communities throughout their history, as they endured acts of persecution, pogroms, and even genocide. Its also a story that has inspired and empowered oppressed people everywhere who, even in their deepest despair, sensed that their own liberation was not beyond reach.
We Jews have always been storytellers. After all, the onset of Judaism does not begin with Shema Yisrael, (“Hear O Israel”) or “You shall have no other Almighty before me.” It starts with a story: “In the beginning, the Creator created heaven and earth. On Passover, too, we are regaled with tales, namely one that begins “I am the Creator who took you out of Egypt.”
The Zohar, the basic text of Jewish mysticism, suggests that when we tell the story of the Exodus on the eve of Passover, we adorn our Creator with jewels and beautify the Almighty. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel reminds us: “Our Creator created human beings because He loves stories…”
Stories help us to figure out who we are and what we should be. They reassure us – that life does not end at the grave, and that a part of us lives on in the stories others tell about us. Isaac Bashevis Singer put it this way: “When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told and books weren’t written, human beings would live like beasts, only for a day. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”
Stories are more than entertainment: they are the language with which we come to understand our place in the world. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Britain, writes: “As we sit around the Seder table on Pesach rehearsing the journey from the bread of affliction to the wine of freedom, we commit ourselves to a momentous proposition: that history has meaning.”
Passover isn’t so much about history as it is about memory. Rabbi Sacks puts it this way: “History is ‘his/her story.’ Memory is ‘my story.’” As it’s written in the Passover Hagadah, “Each person is obligated to see himself or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt.” We’re not supposed to just retell the story of our liberation, but to attempt to experience it and personally identify with it so that it becomes part of our consciousness. As the Torah repeats no less than thirty-six times, we must be kind to the stranger in our midst, because “[we] were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As such, our story should affect not only how we see ourselves, but how we treat others.
The story of our departure from Egypt is not a pretty one. We were slaves; we suffered, we were humiliated, and we were nearly lost. But our history as a people did not end that way. We are still here because we’ve persevered.
The Koran refers to the Jewish people as the “People of the Book,” but I think a more apt moniker would be “People of the Story.” We are part of a great narrative that began with our ancestors and continues to this day. In some ways, we are currently creating the greatest chapter of all – the continuance of our Jewish homeland and the flourishing of a nation reborn. It is a complicated narrative, unpredictable in nature, but we have not really fulfilled our duty as Jews unless we contribute to it somehow.
At this very moment, we are also writing our own personal narrative. What will our children say about us? Will our stories be worthy of repetition to future generations? How will others remember us? Will it be with laughter, with pride, with love? Just something to think about as we get ready to tell over the most ageless story of them all.
Wishing you and your family a healthy and happy Passover.