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What’s in a story?

A constant awareness of the Israelites' experience in Egypt helps block the real possibility that we free people could become oppressors (Shemot)
Illustration of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt in the Kaufmann Haggadah, 14th century. (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustration of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt in the Kaufmann Haggadah, 14th century. (Wikimedia Commons)

It may be the middle of January in the year 2020, but in shul this week, we are sliding back into Egyptian slavery. Genesis, with its cosmic beginning, family dramas, and covenantal narratives, has come to an end far too soon, and we find ourselves facing the mesmerizing if challenging tale of our national origins. Here it is again: the sudden, crushing oppression, the sighs and gasps of Israelite consciousness, our emerging leaders, the terrifying plagues, God’s might in full force, the hasty exit in the middle of the night. And as with all stories to which we return, there is newness within the familiarity, old ways of reading interlaced with new possibilities. For we are not shaped by the same conditions as we were last year. This year, we may be drawn to new aspects, find ourselves thinking about different elements and flashpoints than before. And so it goes.

But this is not a story like any other. It is not simply a tale of our national origins, an epic account of how we came to be. The exodus story is our container as a people, its contours holding the shape of our essence, our mission, the way we ought to be in the world. Telling this story is mandated by the Torah, it is an imperative. Each year, crowded around our scrubbed down dining room tables, we gather to teach and reteach, listen and listen again, trying our best to inhabit the story, make it our own. The distant past, our ephemeral present, and the unforeseen future fuse through our efforts. As we read, “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt..” There is no completion in our telling, no having done it well. We will come back again to it again next year.

But this annual storytelling of ours does not stand alone in our calendrical cycle. Twice a day, we recite the Shema, reminding ourselves that God took us out of Egypt, and making the connection that the mitzvot we perform are intimately linked to those events, to that exodus. Our Passover nights of telling are supported by these daily meditations on the Exodus; perhaps we can go deeper at the seder because we have never strayed far from the core.

But why? Why must we enter and reenter the story? Why the obsession with keeping the Exodus firmly within our consciousness? Are we intent on cultivating ourselves as historians? Is it in fact a fascination with our past that motivates? What is the alternative  — the non-story telling alternative — that the Bible and our tradition work hard to counteract?

There are many possible ways to approach these questions, and I will suggest two, but the critical piece to notice is that all of this storytelling ought not to be circular or self-serving. We don’t tell the story in order to have it told. That is to say, we tell stories — and feel moved to tell our stories — because we hope to create a certain effect, to impart a certain value, to share a particular message. We don’t tell important, national stories just for the pleasure of the tale. There must be a purpose that the story points to, a goal that listening to it and letting it seep in can make possible.

One answer reverberates throughout the Book of Exodus and beyond: telling the story of yetziat Mtizrayim (the exodus from Egypt) can serve to counteract a waning awareness of God’s role in our lives. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses often shares his growing concern that when the Jewish people achieve “normalcy” in the land of Israel — and are able to be prosperous and secure in the land– they will soon think that their economic success is a sign of their hard work and will forget the divine gifts they have received. Even worse, Moses worries that they will forget their national narrative and focus only on their present and immediate future. The antidote? Bringing the story of the Exodus into full view — putting it on everyone’s lips — so that the unique, covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people is the organizing frame for each and every famer, each and every Jewish resident of the land.

Cultivating and maintaining a God and covenantal consciousness continues to take hard work, on an individual level, within the family, and in our wider communal webs. But there is another goal that the Exodus storytelling can help us to achieve, one that is no less challenging in its scope or rigorous in its details. And this is it: telling this story can help safeguard against slipping back into Egypt.

Now I don’t mean a return to our own slavery. What the Torah dreads and warns against is the ever-present possibility that we, as free people, could become oppressors. Keeping our Egyptian experience at the forefront and weaving it into our actions as we keep mitzvot is designed to teach us how to live and embody a different way of being in the world. One in which we live with careful attention to the power dynamics that govern us, and work hard to protect the vulnerable among us from our own overreaching.

Case in point: the mitzvah in Deuteronomy 24 which prohibits withholding wages from a day worker, when the day is done. Why? So that you will remember that you were a slave in Egypt and God redeemed you from there. Withholding those wages could hardly be called enslavement. Any of us could fall into that trap — I ran out of cash, can I pay you tomorrow? But that day worker has no leverage, no alternative but to acquiesce. A subtle moment of oppression. Across a week, a month, a year, the subtlety turns quickly into substantive suffering.

The Torah wants to protect us from going down that path, and to hold a firm line between Egypt and a better way to live. Telling ourselves this story can do more than bring us closer to one another; it can help to shape our destiny.

About the Author
Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz is the chair of the Tanakh department at the SAR High School in Riverdale, NY, and is the founding director of Makom Ba'Siach at SAR, an immersive adult education program for parents. She has taught Bible for the Wexner Heritage program, and she is also an adjunct faculty member of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where she teaches the Pedagogy of Tanakh. Tammy received her BA in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, is a graduate of the Drisha Institute's Scholars Circle, and completed her PhD in Midrash at the University of Pennsylania in 2010 as a Wexner Graduate fellow. Dr. Jacobowitz is currently at work on a parsha book, geared towards parents reading to young children. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband, Ronnie Perelis, and their four children.
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