Some time ago I was leading a discussion with a management group from the National Art Gallery. I was a little startled by the first question asked of me: “Why are all Jews such good story tellers?” After agreeing that we had some magnificent spinners of stories (from Moses to David Grossman), and assuring them that we did have a few lousy ones, I reflected that storytelling was central to Jewish consciousness. Our history begins with a story; our tradition is based on the greatest and best-selling story of all time – the Bible. Our God loves a good story; our culture is based on the transmission of a story.
It is a story that shapes and gives form to the most critical event of Jewish history; the Exodus. It is the act of storytelling that occupies a central place in the Exodus festival, the Seder; “Vehigadeta Levincha” (teach your children) is the mitzvah or commandment par excellence of the night.
The Jewish story is one of the oldest and we tell it to our very youngest. Thus the Haggadah, our text for the night, begins and ends with the children. From Mah Nishtana, the 4 Questions asked by the youngest child, to the Chad Gad Yah song (which is an adaptation of a children’s nursery rhyme), the narrative is constantly aware of the children sitting around the Seder table. We tell them a story of suffering and of hope, compassion and passion.
It has been suggested that the Jewish story is different from a fairy tale and distinct from a Greek myth or tragedy. A fairy tale always ends on a happy note, a Greek tragedy always ends with death and suffering brought on by indifferent fate. The Jewish story seeks not to deny but to defy suffering; it challenges an impersonal universe to recognise the personal hand of God. It may end with hope, but is tempered by realism.
Pesach is the most relevant and vital of stories that we can tell. In an age when the slavery of women and children is still rampant, when freedom is still out of reach of so many on this planet – think China, and Myanmar when racial, cultural and gender inequality is still widespread (and Australia is not devoid of this), the message of Pesach is as urgent and compelling as today’s news. As the Torah reminds us on so many occasions, Passover is a paradigm for freedom and that a civil society cares for its migrants, and vulnerable and weak members; “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers. Don’t afflict the widow or orphan…” (Ex 22,20).
A slave, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, loses the capacity to tell a story. A slave becomes muted, caught up in the restricting confines of their condition. Slaves are prisoners of the metzarim (narrow spaces) of their Mitzrayim (Egypt). A free person revels in their ability to roam, not only the physical and geographical, but beyond the boundaries of conventional and restricted thought. The free individual has the capacity to create and invent their own story. A free Jew will inevitably draw strength and creativity from the liberation story of their people. A slave lives without hope, a free person lives with hope and dreams in their heart. A slave worries about the next piece of lechem (bread), and a free person carries a slice of chalom (dream) with them (lechem and chalom are made up of the same Hebrew letters). To be free is to live with bread and dreams. The story we tell at Passover time is about vision and resilience, finding courage even in the darkness.
On the last days of Pesach we reflect on another pivotal point of the freedom saga: the crossing of the Red Sea. It’s also one of the great stories of the Torah because it’s about fear and bravery, faith and despair. It’s about crossing into the unknown and travelling on a path few would dare to tread. In Robert Frost’s timeless words – it’s about embarking on the road less travelled. Frost’s poem ends with the evocative phrase: “I took the one [path] less travelled by and that has made all the difference”.
At Passover time we reflect on, and tell a story about, the formation of our Jewish identity, the freedom and responsibility that came with it, the birth of hope and the courage of true compassion. A story with global resonance since it speaks to all of humanity in an age of deep conflict and abiding anxiety about maintaining a belief in the future. At Pesach the Jews started on a journey few had ever travelled, and that has made all the difference to who we all are today and what we can become tomorrow.
Chag Sameach – a happy and fulfilling Pesach to you and your family.