Erica Brown

Telling The Story Of Freedom

The Passover table is a place of joy. It takes a lot of work to get there. And when the table is set with ritual food and tableware, it seems like an excellent platform for a great story and conversation to unfold. We’re all ready. We’re equipped with texts that share the majesty and miracles of our ancient days. We powered our way to freedom as an underdog against a large and tyrannical force that sought to destroy us. We know the plot lines all too well. It’s not hard to say, “In every generation a person is obligated to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt…” It seems that sadly and happily, it is always a relevant theme, either for our people or for someone else under the hand of oppression, on the brink of liberation.

There’s only one thing we have a shortage of, and it’s not matzah. We’ve got loads of it. They’re even selling shmura matzah — a matzah made with even more vigilant oversight — at Costco these days. It’s not wine, because there’ll be four cups of that as well. And when it comes to the main course, we’re on brisket overload. Arteries beware. In Exodus we read that the first evening of Passover is a night of watchfulness, but don’t be careless. Make sure the Lipitor is ready and on hand (is Lipitor kosher for Passover?).

Here’s what we’re missing: great storytellers.

Great stories keep us on the edge of our seats. They are told by masters of detail with voices that modulate and inspire. They have a cast of interesting characters. There’s almost always a villain and a hero. There’s a fabulous plot brimming with twists and turns, unexpected conflicts and satisfying endings. There are usually a few important life lessons discreetly tucked into its pages that lodge inside of us and don’t let us go.

Do we have that kind of story? Of course we do. Do we tell it like a great story? Not really. Not usually. For many people, the worst part of Passover is the mumbling of the Haggadah, the tedium of its language. We can’t wait to get to “Dayenu” because it offers a moment of collective song, tradition and relief. I remember reading the complaint of a young woman about the family gathering that is every Passover in her home: “Why is this night more boring than any other night?”

For years, I’ve struggled to make sense of what kind of document the Haggadah really is. Logically speaking, if our task is to share the story of the Exodus, the most natural way to do that is to take out a Hebrew Bible, a Tanach, and recite the first 15 chapters, from Pharaoh’s enforced slavery to the Song of the Sea, when we finally left and broke out in exaltation. I’ve always wondered why that’s not the case. Granted, it will take up more book space than a Maxwell House Haggadah at the table, but it will get the job done with more clarity and efficiency.

One day it dawned on me. The Haggadah is not the story of the exodus from Egypt. Far from it. It’s a rabbinic collage of odd, disconnected passages — snippets of biblical verses with rabbinic interpretation, a few breaks for performance art (the four questions, the four sons, the door opening) and exceptionally weird math. Nothing about the Haggadah is linear. Nothing about it is chronologically smooth. So if you had to explain the Haggadah to an absolute stranger, what would you say?

Here’s what I’d say. The Haggadah is an ancient book that shares how our ancient sages told the story of leaving Egypt with passion and enthusiasm, without telling the story itself. They stayed up all night telling it, in hiding when it wasn’t safe to tell it. They were so enraptured by it they had no idea it was morning. They told it even though they were all-wise and knew it already. They prompted themselves with questions and ritual food, numbers and narrative. They sang songs to stir memories. The Haggadah models what an active storyteller does to keep listeners engaged, assuming its readers knew the story’s content.

It’s not an assumption we can make today. In demographic research, the No. 1 ritual still observed by American Jews is the Passover seder. What happens at the table, however, is usually an extended family dinner rather than history relived. Some millennials told me their families don’t even bother with the Haggadah anymore. They just eat. Rabbi A. J. Heschel once said that we don’t need textbooks but text-people. We have a great story. Now we need great storytellers.

Erica Brown, whose column appears the first week of the month, is the author of “Seder Talk: A Conversational Haggada.”

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).