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Telling Our Story
Shabbat Vayikra 5777
Our ability to tell stories makes us unique among all living creatures. We human beings tell stories about ourselves and gossip about each other. In our stories we come together or remain distant. Our stories guide our behavior and our beliefs. In his thought-provoking book Sapiens, Historian Yuval Harari describes our stories as “imagined reality.”
Professor Harari teaches objective reality exists only in the physical world. Imagined reality exists when we believe our stories. Laws, justice, human rights “none of these things exist,” he writes, “outside the stories that people invent and tell one another.” As he elaborates and challenges, “There are…no nations, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”
In other words, Chizuk Amuno Congregation exists only because we want it to. Because our allegiance is to the idea of being a synagogue community. Chizuk Amuno is a reality we imagine together. Change our story, change our commonly held beliefs, change our values, change our articles of incorporation (themselves an imagined reality) – we are different or gone. Our community in and of itself has no objective reality.
Here’s why this matters, and why I find it fascinating. Imagined reality is the key to living a meaningful life. Human history results not from biology but from the ideas we debate, the relationships we form, and the social cultures we build. The fictions we tell about ourselves bind us together as nothing else does, motivate our ingenuity and creativity, and inspire us to be about more than our physical reality. Our stories point us toward belief in God, goodness, identity, and purpose.
Take the Jewish people’s master story as an example. The story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt. The story we’re going to retell when we sit at our Seder tables with family and friends precisely because the story itself urges us to. “V’higadta l’vinkha – And you shall tell your child.” This is our imagined reality, our self-description. “It is because of what the Eternal God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
“V’higadta l’vinkha – And you shall tell your child.” From this command we take the name for our Seder story book, the Haggadah, the Telling. Although, there’s a problem with our Seder story book. It doesn’t actually tell the story! The Haggadah is a storybook without a plot.
What then is the Haggadah? The Haggadah is a manual for the leader of the Seder. It assumes we, or at least the leader of the Seder, already know the story. When the Haggadah text states, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” that’s all it says. Next we are encouraged to tell and elaborate on the story however we may choose.
The Haggadah contains the various blessings and ceremonies of the Seder ritual. It also includes a great deal of Midrash, rabbinic lessons and legends we may use to interpret the exodus story as we tell it. The Four Questions, the Four Children, hiding the Afikomen, and instructions for spilling wine when we recite the Ten Plagues enrich our telling of the story. They are not the story.
Here’s a sample. A Midrash that both interprets the exodus story and helps us tell it at our Seder tables. At the center of our Seder tables we set three pieces of matzah. After reciting Kiddush over the first cup of wine, the leader symbolically washes his or her hands, and everyone shares in Karpas, the green appetizer we dip in salt water. It’s a familiar start to every Seder.
Next, the leader selects the middle matzah of the three, and splits it in half creating the Afikomen, the matzah we hide and put away for later, to eat after our Seder meal. We then uncover the remaining matzot and recite: “Ha lahma anya…This is the Bread of Affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.”
Torah describes matzah as “lehem oni (in Aramaic lahma anya) – the bread of affliction.” The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shmuel plays with the Hebrew word “oni – affliction,” which can also mean “answer.” He tells us matzah is the “bread over which one gives answers,” which of course leads us to the Four Questions and our Seder Table discussions.
The familiar Four Questions are prompts suggested as a hint to the Seder leader. Do something different during the Seder event. Do something different with the food. Do something different with the ceremony, something that will prompt your children, grandchildren, and guests to ask questions. Remember, our purpose at the Seder is to engage our children and everyone else in our people’s story.
When Rabbi Abaye was a child he sat at a Seder and watched as the Seder leader removed platters of food from the table before dinner. He asked, “We have not yet eaten dinner, why are you taking the food away from us? Rabba the Seder leader answered, “We are now exempt from asking the Four Questions because you have already asked a question about what’s different tonight.”
Questions are the most powerful demonstration of freedom we have. Slaves don’t question authority. Free people do. People persecuted and discriminated against are at risk if they challenge their oppressors. Free people find dignity in being curious and speaking out. We transform “lehem oni, the bread of affliction” into a free person’s bread, “bread over which one gives answers.” What an amazing symbol! What a powerful imagined reality! Matzah represents both the affliction of slavery and the promise of freedom.
In some form, all of us know the Exodus story. We all have questions, too, about our history, about our customs, about current events, about each other, about our memories, about things we find curious. Our children and grandchildren certainly do. Encourage them and everyone else around your table to ask, to wonder, to explore, and therefore, to be free.
As Seder leaders and participants let’s plan ahead. In addition to questions of Seder symbols and the exodus story, what questions should we discuss at our Seder celebrations this year?
At the Seder our people’s history becomes personal. “Every individual should feel as though he or she was redeemed from Egypt, as the Torah commands, ‘V’higadta l’vinkha – And you shall tell your child.’”
What is our personal accountability to this story? What do we do on behalf people who are not free today? As individuals who were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt are we morally responsible for their rights and dignity? Aware of the debates raging in our society about immigrants and refugees, what is our response because we know and understand our story?
The real purpose of a Seder is to talk, to interpret, to eat and to rejoice. You decide for how long and you choose with whom about what. Do these two things at your Seder. Tell the story and ask questions, and have a Haggadah on the table to guide your celebration.
Our ability to tell stories makes us unique among all living creatures. Our ability to tell the exodus story makes us unique as the Jewish people. Telling our story binds us together. Telling our story we promote a vision of freedom and justice others may accept. Telling our story, our imagined reality, we invite all of humanity to join with us in redeeming the world.
I came to Chizuk Amuno Congregation in July 2004 to serve as this synagogue community’s seventh Senior Rabbi. Teaching is the rabbinic role I find most enjoyable. Celebrating and observing the sacred, personal moments of people’s lives is the experience of being a rabbi that means the most to me. Helping to build and form the character and values of a synagogue community is the rabbinic work about which I am the most passionate. Prior to moving to Baltimore, I served for 21 years as rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.