I just began reading a book entitled The Art of Memoir. The author, Mary Karr, has written three award-winning, bestselling memoirs. She also has taught literature and writing to generations of college students.
In the book’s opening chapter, Karr writes, “I come from a family of storytellers, and it’s true that having a close group of folks retell events over and over better logs the narrative into long-term storage. But memorized language can also calcify what’s in your head. Events grow stale when told by rote. Like old dough squeezed out of a pastry bag, the stories can feel too artificially shaped. Painful events told for humor can be drained of the real pathos or terror they first registered with.”
Probably because we are on the eve of Passover, this paragraph leaped out at me for its application as to how we should approach our observance of the festival. We Jews are a people of storytellers. Pesach is the occasion par excellence when all of us are called upon to recount the central story of our people – that we were once slaves in Egypt and through God’s redeeming power we were brought forth to freedom.
Young and old are commanded to tell the story. Indeed, a considerable portion of the Seder is devoted to the Maggid section, recalling our time of oppression at the hands of the Egyptians; the plagues that afflicted the Egyptians; the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds; and our redemption from the hands of Pharaoh and his warriors.
Our telling this story year after year “logs the narrative into long-term storage.” However, as Karr warns, there is a danger that our recounting this familiar tale can become stale, calcified, and artificial. When we robotically read page after page of the Haggadah; when we rush through the early sections of the Seder so we can get to the meal; when we frame the Exodus as akin to a fairy tale that takes place in a fantasy land, then we rob ourselves of the potency of Pesach.
The enslaved Israelites experienced horrific pain not only in cruel bondage but in having their newborn baby boys taken from their homes and put to death. The story is replete with pathos, for the 10th plague not only struck down Pharaoh’s son, but also the firstborn in every household, even of the captive who was in the dungeon. There was trembling fear in the hearts of the Israelites as they set-out on a journey toward an unknown land. There was terror on the faces of Pharaoh’s charioteers as the walls of the sea came crashing down, drowning every last man.
“Like old dough squeezed out of a pastry bag, the stories can feel too artificially shaped.” Our telling of the story of Passover can be as dry and tasteless as matzah. Or it can be as flavorsome as a Hillel sandwich, with bitterness and sweetness mixed together. It is up to each one of us to avoid the trap of rote recitation and bring to life the story of Pesach. Everyone has the responsibility not to see Passover as a tale of long ago, but for us to see ourselves in the story; as participants in the narrative; attuned to the theme of liberation not only for our ancestors but for us as well, and for all people.
May your Passover be vibrant with feeling; compelling with passion; thought-provoking with significance. I wish you Chag Sameach, a beautiful and meaning-filled Pesach.