The Seder and the Stories We Retell
Imagine bringing a guest to your family’s seder — a newcomer to the Pesach traditions. “We will tell the story of our journey from slavery to freedom,” you explain, “and along the way, we will eat some strange foods.”
Afterwards, clearing the afikoman crumbs from the table, you ask your friend for their reaction.
“It was moving, powerful,” they say. “But I don’t think we ever really got to the full story?”
It’s true, we never actually tell the story from beginning to end.
Rather, we refer to bits and pieces of the story, out of order, through songs, through rituals, and through foods and flavors. We prepare to tell the story, we talk about telling the story, and then, in a section of the seder which either flies by too fast to notice — or inches by so slowly that one loses track of the narrative flow — we quote and then decipher the script of a speech.
What is this speech?
The book of Deuteronomy, set 40 years after the Exodus, features Moses instructing the people about the exact words they must recite, once they have entered their homeland, settled down, planted their very own crops, and then, for the first time, brought a basket of their precious harvest to the Temple. In a nutshell: my ancestors, small in number and powerless, went down to Egypt, were enslaved by the Egyptians, and finally God redeemed us and brought us to this fantastic, fertile land (Deut 26, 5-9).
The rabbis who constructed the seder 2,000 years ago positioned this passage as one of the central obligations of the seder. It is recited phrase by phrase, and after each phrase, it is subjected to meandering, extensive rabbinic interpretation. Altogether, this section is called Maggid — or “Telling” — as in “telling the story of our journey from slavery to freedom.”
This brings us back to the question: if we are meant to tell that story, then why do we not crack open the book of Exodus, kick back (or lean to the side), and read the story, from start to finish?
Maybe it is because the Haggadah is encouraging us to tell the story not as it happened, not as a sequence of events — but rather, to focus our attention on why it matters and how the story is relevant today. For the farmer whom Moses was instructing, exodus meant freedom to till the soil, and plant and grow his own fruit – not somebody else’s.
That “mini-history,” borrowed from Deuteronomy and imported into the Haggadah, serves as the all-time preferred paradigm for telling the story of the Exodus — not as history, but rather as autobiography. The first Biblical farmers, bringing their harvest to the Temple, were required to tell the story in the first person — in the context of their lives. We are tasked to do the same, continuing that tradition of retelling the story as our very own. The rabbis give us a foundation in the Haggadah; but the rest is up to us.
Above all else, we at the Florence Melton School seek to empower learners worldwide with the tools to tell our Jewish stories in ways that make them relevant, inspiring, and alive. So how about this year, when you sit down to tell the story of the Exodus at your seder table, you start your retelling with these words from your own perspective:
“My ancestors, who were slaves in Egypt thousands of years ago, were not blessed with the freedoms that I have often taken for granted. This past year, whether amidst a national lockdown or a home quarantine, I have been reminded that freedom is precious. I resolve that, with whatever freedom I have, I will….” (you take it from here).
Let us take a page out of the Haggadah, and tell our stories not in terms of what was, but in terms of what is yet to be.
Rabbi Rachel Bovitz is the Executive Director of the Florence Melton School, and Rabbi Morey Schwartz is the International Director.