Pesach and The Stories We Tell About Ourselves

“Tell me about yourself.”

It’s the kind of theoretically nonchalant conversation starter you get from the stranger seated next to you at your neighbours’ kid’s Bat Mitzvah.

“Tell me about yourself.” It should be a simple request.

But where do you begin? What do you say? Do you tell him that you’re an accountant or that when you worked it was as a printer? Or would that mean that you’re defined by what you do or did for a living? To what extent does your occupation define your essence?

Perhaps you should start earlier. Maybe you should tell him where you were born or grew up, but does your hometown explain who you are today? Perhaps your parents were survivors and their experience has influenced your personality and according to some research maybe even your genes? What of your ethnicity, your ancestors? Perhaps you should begin with what’s really important to you or maybe that would just be weird.

Once a year we ask this of ourselves. Who are we?

We begin the maggid section of the seder– the section in which we retell the story of the exodus – with one question. Why is this night different than all other nights? We ask in essence: What’s going on here? What’s is this all about? More deeply the question insinuates: How did we get here? What is the story of our people? Who am I? The child innocent asks ‘why is this night different?’ We hear, with all of its difficulties and depth. ‘Tell me about yourself’.

All of the differences noted in the Mah Nishtanah, the matzah instead of bread, the double dipping, the bitter herbs, and the reclining are meant to guide the question asker and ourselves into an exploration of who we are. They are meant to prompt the telling of the story of our people.

How you tell this story matters, for it serves as a lens of how we understand where we come from and perhaps where we are going. What is included? When does it begin? Importantly, how does it end? Though facts are unalterable, history is open to interpretation. It is amidst that interpretation that we find meaning for today.

The Mishna, in typically gendered fashion, provides the basic outline for the maggid section. The son asks why this night is different. Many of you will be familiar with the Mishna’s scripted components of the father’s answer: the recitation of the ‘my father was a wandering Aramean’ midrash; Rabban Gamliel’s explanation of the Pesach, Matzah and Marror; the need to see one’s self as personally having left Egypt; and a concluding blessing looking forward to a future redemption.

The Mishna however also specifies that in answering the opening question we should tell a story, a story that begins with גנות and concludes with שבח. On Passover night the story that we tell must begin with shame and end with praise – shame on what we once were and praise for what we have become. No further details are provided.

Where to begin? How to end? What story do we tell about the Jewish people? On this sacred night of Passover, what story do we tell about ourselves?

This lack of specificity – what shame? what praise? – enables the haggadah’s telling of not one, but two separate stories – stories that start in different places, stories that present very different understanding of who we are as a people.

That people can take agreed upon facts and yet generate from them very different stories with very different implied meanings should be no surprise. Americans still argue over whether their civil war was about slavery or states’ rights.

Here in Canada, when we conceive of our history as beginning with the British North America Act of 1867 then the Canada we imagine is one of British loyalists working together with the crown in taking small steps towards autonomy and ultimate independence. If however we start with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 following the cessation of the Seven Year’s War, we necessarily imagine a Canadian story that includes First Nations people as their land claims are specifically addressed by King George III.

It is not without reason that Canada’s First Nations held a 250th anniversary party for the Royal Proclamation with the Governor-General in 2013. It is similarly not without cause that many Indigenous communities are resisting Canada 150 celebrations. The story’s starting point matters. Of course, neither 1867 nor 1763 speak to French-Canadians for whom Samuel de Champlain and the founding of Quebec City in 1608 is the mythical moment of conception.

How we tell our stories, when we choose for our stories to begin, tells us who we are.

It should be no surprise then to anyone familiar with Jewish textual interpretation that given the Mishna’s lack of detail on how to tell a story that begins with shame and ends with praise that the haggadah tells two opposing stories of our people and our history.

The first story we tell is the story as told by the Talmudic sage Shmuel. His is perhaps the shorter, easier story, the one I think that is more accessible to children. Perhaps that is why it finds itself immediately adjacent to the opening question at the beginning of the seder.

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God took us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Indeed, the explanation goes, had God not taken us out we would all still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.

This story is one of physical bondage and supernatural salvation. It is about the degradation experienced of having no control over one’s own body. This is a story that is dependent on space. Here we are enslaved, but there we are free. Starting the story with slavery in Egypt, makes it a story about power and nationhood, about vulnerability and security. It is a story about an evil other and the safety of the Land of Israel.

It is also a story that tells us וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ ה אֱלֹקינוּ מִשָּׁם – it was God that took us out of there. While the experience of slavery in Egypt may lead us to shield ourselves from any possible future harm imposed upon us by others, this story of our freedom as recounted in the haggadah (though not seemingly by Shmuel himself), perhaps paradoxically points to faith in God and not in human agency as the source of our salvation.

This story, this answer to the question of how did we get here – we were slaves and God brought us to freedom – is the answer most familiar to us, but it is not the only answer provided in the haggadah.

Later in the maggid section, the haggadah delves deeper into the history of our people as it explores what it means to tell a story that begins with shame and ends with praise. It is later that we find the story of our people as told by the Talmudic sage Rav.

מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ – At first our forefathers worshipped idols, Rav begins. וְעַכְשָׁיו and now God has brought us to monotheism. While the explanatory biblical quotation that follows concludes with Jacob’s descent to Egypt, the notion of גנות, of shame, is fundamentally different for Rav than it is for Shmuel. Rav tells a story more difficult to relay to children. If for Shmuel shame is about physical bondage in a land not our own, for Rav it is about spiritual servitude to gods not our own.

Rav’s origin story isn’t about the body. It is about the mind and spirit. Nor is it about power and physical strength, but rather personal growth and religious enlightenment. Rav’s story can take place anywhere. Though the language of the haggadah indicates that God is the actor – קֵרְבָנוּ, God drew us close – we acknowledge that a relationship with God requires personal commitment. A Jew must labour to cleave to the Almighty. For Shmuel freedom happens at the national level. ‘Let my people go’, declares Moses. Yet, each individual Jew must be prepared for spiritual awakening. Rav’s is ultimately a very personal tale.

Ruth said it best when she told Naomi that your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God. She understood that as Jews we exist within both a national and religious framework. Shmuel and Rav understood that too, each one focusing on a different aspect of what it means to be Jewish. Ultimately, the haggadah opted to include both stories of our people. The national movement from Egypt to Israel and the personal journey from idol worship to God.

On Monday and Tuesday nights as you tell the story of our people, which story will you tell? Where does your narrative begin?

Perhaps as importantly, where do you want it to go? How should a story about physical freedom from a pharaoh in a land not our own conclude? Does it necessarily entail Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel with the advanced weaponry and standing army required to defend ourselves from those who wish us harm? Or can such a story end outside of the land of Israel in a liberal democracy with sovereignty not over land, but over our own bodies?

As you add another chapter to the Jewish yearly symposium on the meaning of freedom ask yourself: For Shmuel and his focus on physical freedom, is life in the Diaspora actually free? Is contemporary Jewish life in Canada enough to fulfill Shmuel’s approach to concluding the Jewish story with praise for the accomplishments of the Jewish people?

Maybe though you’ll speak more of Rav and his story of spiritual transformation. We may not bow down to statues, but can any of us say with confidence that our spiritual endeavours are fully praiseworthy? Does Rav’s story conclude with a national Sh’ma, a mere verbal declaration of monotheism or for his story to progress do we need to move away from what can only be described spiritual nourishkeit – from Hollywood idols, and societal demands for fancy clothes and luxury cars? Where should Rav’s story take us today?

Why is this night different? It is different because on Pesah night dining and discussing amongst our community we self-consciously situate ourselves on the vanguard of the Jewish people’s dual-narrative of peoplehood and religion. We must not only to see ourselves as personally having left Egypt, but also as significant actors and screen writers in the ongoing narrative of the Jewish people.

It is my hope that come the seders, as you read these narratives of our people, that you will take a moment to reflect upon and discuss how you make meaning of Jewish history and how you will help create Jewish destiny.



About the Author
Adam Cutler is the Senior Rabbi of Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto, ON.
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