Passing the Story of Passover to the Next Generation
Storytelling has always been a core tenet of Judaism. Not surprisingly then, some of history’s greatest storytellers are Jews. From the Dubner maggid to Hassidic masters like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, to Nobel literature laureates like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow, to masters of cinema like Kubrick, Polanski, and Spielberg – Jews undoubtedly know how to weave a good yarn.
The ultimate Jewish story is of course the one we read on Passover. “Maggid,” the telling of the Exodus story, is the biggest component of Seder night, yet it barely touches on the biblical text of Exodus itself. Replete with allegory, parable, and Talmudic tales, the Passover Haggada – the primary national, liberation narrative of the Jewish people – has to be one of the most visceral narratives we own as a people. And owning that story is the Seder night’s foremost objective.
“And you should tell your children,” instructs the Haggada, “for in every generation one is obligated to view himself as though he came out of Egypt.” Our challenge then, is to safeguard the evolution of our story by finding ways to bring it to life and understanding its relevance for today. Whereas other festivals generally have fixed texts and prayers, the Haggadah is flexible and ad libbing is encouraged.
In fact, we are told that “anyone who elaborates on the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.” In this way, the Haggadah is the ultimate pedagogical tool and should be used as a means for engaging the next generation. It means doing what we can to avoid a situation in which the children (and adults) present at the Seder sit through the Haggadah bored out of their skulls and wondering when they will finally get to eat something other than matzah and marror.
For some, engagement means taking the idea of “feeling as though you yourself went out of Egypt” to a whole new level by literally acting out the Exodus by marching out the door carrying imaginary impedimenta (as is the custom in many Sephardic homes.) For others, it might be singing Passover-themed songs. But for most, the number one method for engagement is to motivate people at the Seder to ask questions.
The Aristotelian view that asking the right questions is half the answer is reflected in the Haggadah with one major exception: There should be no such thing as “a right question.” Once a child asks a question – even if it’s the “wrong” one – he or she automatically becomes involved. This is why question-asking is such a major theme of Seder night; even the Talmud says that the entire reason for eating karpas is just so the children will ask questions. How classically Jewish!
Our ability to ask questions is what formed us as a nation. Our innate chutzpah, which pushes us to probe, to never be satisfied with any given answer, to keep searching, is what makes Judaism so unique. And questions are the driving force behind storytelling too. A good director will always ask: what motivates a character in a movie to do something? Why is the character the way he is? The other part of the equation is also knowing how to answer according to your audience. Accompanying the Seder night’s four questions are the four sons.
Each son represents a different kind of Jew, and as such each requires different approaches – be they intellectual, affective, or behavioral. We do answer the rasha (the proverbial “wicked son”) in the same way we answer the tam (the simpleton). But our task is to tell the story in compelling enough a way as to elicit questions even from the son who initially “does not know how to ask.”
The story of our formation as the Jewish people is ever-evolving. With every generation we ask again, Mah nishtana – what has changed? For our generation, some of those questions are fraught with complexities. Nevertheless, they must be asked. Why should I care about the Exodus from Egypt? Moses never gets to the Promised Land, so how does Israel play a part in the narrative? What does that mean for today?
How is Israel – today’s Israel versus the myth of Israel, the vision of an ideal homeland and our relationship it – a core part of today’s narrative? What does “Next Year In Jerusalem” mean? What is the meaning of bondage to freedom? What are we to do with this freedom? Where are our areas of opportunity and responsibility today? What does it mean to “tell all those who are hungry to come and eat?” Why must I welcome the stranger, feed the poor, provide shelter for the homeless, fight against injustices?
Even though it’s 3,300 years old, the epic story of Jewish peoplehood has yet to reach its denouement. Our tireless determination to keep on asking questions will ensure its perpetuity for generations to come.
The writer is the Director for Young Judaea, the oldest Zionist youth movement in America.