Pesach is many things to many people: memory, message, meaning, food, tradition, song or a call to justice, action, and transformation. Regardless how Pesach may resonate with you in your own life, give yourself a unique Pesach gift: the blessing of telling your own story.
This can be interpreted literally of course: we tell the stories of our ancestors at our Seders, just we chant Hallel, the festive psalms, at our Festival services. From Kiddush to Chad Gadya, from Maggid to Nirtza there is plenty of story and song. We can also, however, transcend the literal understanding and look at a deeper meaning: what does it mean for us to tell our own story?
The word Haggadah means ‘the telling’. It’s interesting that our tradition has chosen this word when other terms would have fitted too: ‘Limmud’, ‘the learning’ would have been adequate – after all, the Seder has an undeniable pedagogical methodology through its melodies, foods and rituals. Yet, it’s the verb ‘lehagid’, ‘to tell’ that has become the centerpiece of Pesach. As the Torah commands us, ‘higadeta levincha bayom hahu lemor: ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li betzeti mimitzrayim’ – ‘and you shall tell your child on that day saying, it is because of this what the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt’. (Ex. 13:8)
When studying this verse, we usually focus on ‘ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li betzeti mimitzrayim’ – ‘it is because of this what the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt’. This verse provides the basis of the famous statement by Rabban Gamliel in Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 that ‘in every generation a person must regard him or herself as though he or she personally had gone out of Egypt’. Personalizing the Seder as if we suffered the deprivation of slavery and the liberation of the Exodus is one of the cardinal commandments of the Festival. In each age, we are called to hear the ‘tza’akah gedolah’, the ‘great outcry’ of our time and cultivate radical empathy.
Still, there’s another dimension to the verse from Exodus: ‘higadeta levincha’ – ‘and you shall tell your child’. What is it about this ‘telling’? A story is more than just a series of facts. A story aspires to bring intent to its telling. A report may focus on dry data. A story, however, is meant to bury its way into our kishkes, our innermost, intuitive selves. The gift of Pesach is that we are invited to take ownership over our stories and write them.
What an amazing, powerful thing. The difference between victimhood and empowerment is wafer thin, like the matzah we eat. Many peoples, nations, cultures and faiths have narratives centering on their own hardship and oppression. What makes our Jewish narrative unique is that our ancestors had the courage to tell our story in a different way. The Torah and Mishnah encourage us to tell the story with radical empathy; with a living, breathing concern for the other. We are charged to control our own message and ultimately we are shaped not merely by our circumstances but through our choices and commitments.
What story will you be telling this year? The words and melody mutate across the centuries, but the sacred intent remains constant. Our liberation is tied up with the liberation of all humanity. We empower ourselves not at the expense of our enemies but in the name of ethical monotheism. We place at the center, like the Seder plate at our home Seders, our own vulnerability and derive incredible strength from it.
Give yourself this gift. Tell your own Pesach story. Tell those who you love, tell the world, tell God what your great dream is. Call out, sing praise, dance at the shore, cry bitter tears, laugh and love and through all of these, see the divinity in our common humanity. Know that we can transform trauma into redemption in the crucible of our People’s greatest gift: the ability to tell our story. That our stories may be a blessing to all.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz serves Congregation Agudas Achim, in Iowa City, Iowa.