Rabbis as Storytellers
Shmuels Story: We were slaves
When, in time to come, your children ask you: What
is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has
enjoined upon you? You shall say to your children: We were
slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty
hand and an outstretched arm. The Lord produced before our eyes great
and awful signs and wonders in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household;
and God freed us from there, so that God could take us and give us the
land that had been promised on oath to our ancestors (Deut.
vs. Rav: Competing Stories
After the youngest child has asked the
four questions and everyone else has added their own questions, then
its time to tell the story that will explain why for us this night
is different from all other nights. The Rabbis recommended:
The parent should
teach according to the intelligence and personality of each child. Begin
with describing the degradation and culminate with the liberation
(Mishna Pesachim X, 2).
However, Rav and Shmuel,
the Babylonian rabbis, disagreed about the central story to be told at
this point in the seder:
Start with We were slaves in the land of Egypt (Deut. 6:20)
and move from physical enslavement to political liberation (see page 44).
Rav said: Start
with Terach, Abrahams father and the state of idolatry to which
we had descended. Once upon a time our ancestors were slaves
of idolatry who worshipped pagan gods. Now since Mount Sinai
God has brought us close to the Divine service
(see Rav's Pesach Story).
The editors of the
Haggadah bring both stories: first Shmuels We were slaves
and later, after the Four Children, Ravs story.
Ask the Best Questions
A kindergarden child once asked the teacher:
What does it mean to be a slave? Is it like being the cleaning lady
who doesnt speak English? Try to answer the childs question.
Tomorrow Today Will Be A Story"
When a day passes,
it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story.
If stories werent told or books werent written, humans would
live like the beasts, only for the day.
Reb Zebulun said, Today we live, but by tomorrow today will be a
story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.
Children are as puzzled
by passing time as grownups. What happens to a day once it is gone? Where
are all our yesterdays with their joys and sorrows? Literature helps us
remember the past with its many moods. To the storyteller yesterday
is still here as are the years and the decades gone by.
In stories time does
not vanish. Neither do people and animals. For the writer and his readers,
all creatures go on living forever. What happened long ago is still present.
(I.B. Singer, Nobel prize laureate, Yiddish literature,
from Zlateh the Goat)
Zoma vs. the Rabbis:
Will the Seder be Superceded?
THE TALMUD RELATES that Ben-Zoma felt that
the Messianic redemption would wipe out the memories of all previous troubles
and rescues. The Rabbis insisted that while the Messianic redemption would
be the greater one, we must still recall the earlier ones, including the
This argument has
to do with the importance of memory. For Ben-Zoma, contemporary events
have the decisive weight. Some modern Zionist thinkers like Ben-Gurion
seem to prefer this position, arguing that the founding of Israel has
made 2000 years of exilic experience irrelevant. In their view, the Bible,
reflecting the experience of a sovereign people in its land, must be the
pivotal educating force for Jewish culture, not the Talmud which grew
in the shadow of destruction and conquest by the Romans. Similarly, some
might argue that the enormity of the Holocaust makes the recalling of
all previous sufferings of the Jews seem trivial and irrelevant.
The Rabbis maintained
that history should add, but not erase memories. Recent dramatic historical
events may indeed be accorded prominence, but we should never forget our
earlier experiences. In their view, even in the Messianic Era when war,
poverty, and human suffering have been eradicated, it will still be incumbent
to remember daily the saga of bondage and liberation.
Reflections: My Most Unusual Seder
The seder is as much a family renewal
ceremony as a remembrance of ancient Egypt. Sharing family memories with
the younger members as well as involving the guests, who may feel homesick,
will contribute to the bonding of all participants.
1. Ask the participants,
especially the guests, to share a special seder memory. (See The Leaders
Guide for great seders in jewish history).
2. Ask the participants,
especially the oldest ones, to recall their best or their worst moment
at the old family seder. (For example, the seder when I had stage fright
in the middle of the four questions).