Our first Passover was a rushed and hurried affair. We had plans, but they were all for naught. Standing on the edge of the wilderness, everything was chaotic. We made it up as we went along and tried out new practices for the first time. We observed it as best we could. Some had the proper food, some were together with other people, some owned the right objects; and yet, many had to improvise. To share food, to borrow objects, to observe that first Passover alone. And we did, we observed it, each in our household.
As we reached our second Passover, we thought we would be on the other side of this wilderness. We had hoped we would have reached the promised land by then. But it was not to be.
So we did it again, in the wilderness, a second Passover. This go-around we had more time to prepare, we were able to gather in larger groups. We performed the rituals and said the prayers. And we remembered the hurried observance of just one year before.
And so we have done every year since.
Our first Passover was a rushed and hurried affair because we were still slaves in Egypt, still trapped in servitude to Pharoah. Each household observed it separately, individually preparing a pascal lamb and eating it alone. We ate quickly, with sandals on our feet and staffs in our hands, not knowing what would come next. We improvised that first Passover observance.
When it was time for our second Passover, we were still very much trapped in the wilderness. We had hoped by then to have already crossed the Jordan River and reached the promised land, but it was not to be. So again we prepared ourselves; this time we were able to prepare the meal together, though we returned to our individual homes after its observance.
We did this, as the Torah tells us “so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as long as you live.”
And we do.
In every generation and in every age, we continue to tell the story and perform the rituals. Sometimes we do that as households and sometimes in larger communities. Sometimes in times of joy and celebration and sometimes in times of struggle and sadness.
There is a story that is told about the Baal Shem Tov, the 17th Century Rabbi and storyteller.
When the Baal Shem Tov saw a problem, one that was too big for him to handle alone, he practiced a specific ritual. He would go to a particular place in the forest; once there he would light a holy fire and recite a unique prayer. In arriving at the place, lighting the fire, and reciting the prayer, he would ask for help and guidance through the difficulty that faced him and his community. And each time he did this he found the inspiration and the strength to return and complete the task that had troubled him.
Many years later, long after the Baal Shem Tov had died, when his chief disciple had a similar difficulty, he would try to recreate that ritual. This second generation leader would go to the same place in the forest: but he did not know how to light the holy fire, yet he could still recite the prayer. And he too, at that particular place, with the unique prayer, found the inspiration and the strength to return and complete the task that had troubled him.
More years later, when a third generation of leaders had a similar difficulty, they too tried to recreate the ritual. Yet, they did not know how to light the fire and they had forgotten the prayer. Still, they would go to the place in the forest; once there, they too found the inspiration and the strength to return and complete the task that had troubled them.
And still many more years later, when the fourth generation had difficulty, they too would try to recreate the ritual. Yet, they did not know how to light the fire, they could not remember the prayer, they had forgotten the specific place in the forest. So instead, they told this story. They told the story of the previous generations, of their ancestors who completed the same tasks. In telling that story, they too found the inspiration and the strength to return and complete the task that had troubled them.
This is what the story of Passover has done for us for generations. It has been something for us to return to, to provide comfort amid chaos. To relish in the routine and familiarity it provided.
Our ancestors returned to this story over and over again, many times especially in times of trouble and turmoil.
And after a period of cultic chaos, the Israelites returned to the practice of observing Passover under the direction of King Josiah. And after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylonia, they returned to perform the same rites and rituals, led by Ezra the prophet.
And after the Roman Empire destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai changed the ritual of Passover. No longer did we sacrifice a pascal lamb on the altar. Now, we told the story of the Exodus from Egypt and held up a shankbone in the center of our tables, as a memory of that lamb that once was sacrificed.
So we too, in our own day, return to Passover.
Passover is not only the story of the Israelites escape from slavery. It is not only the story of the Israelites exodus, of their wandering through the wilderness, of their revelation, and hope for redemption.
Passover is our story, we are taught, “It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
Each time we go back to tell and retell the story of Passover, each time we take ownership of it as our own story, each time we connect that experience of Exodus from Egypt to our modern experiences of Exodus it becomes a more powerful and more important story.
The story itself is more important than the events. The story has grown to be more powerful each time we repeat and reflect on it. Each time we cite it in arguments and elaborate on it in folklore.
Whether we are surrounded by family and friends sitting at a fancy Seder table, or with just a few other people scattered around a living room, or on our own in front of a computer screen with a little slip of paper colored brown, that says ‘shank bone’ on it. This story is our story.
And so it is with our stories. Our story of this past year and a half.
Like the first Passover fleeing Egypt, Passover 2020 was a rushed and hurried affair. We had plans, to be together with family, to travel, but they were all for naught, as just days before we were quarantined into our homes, stuck in a wilderness of the unknown. Everything was chaotic, we made it up as we went and observed it as best we could. Some of us had the food, the people, the ritual objects; and some of us had to improvise. We observed it, each in our household, joined together over a new technology we were using for the first time.
As we reached our Passover 2021, we thought we would be on the other side of this chaotic wilderness. With the arrival of vaccines and the knowledge doctors and scientists had gained of this new virus, we had hoped we would have reached the point where we could be back together, again. But, it was not to be.
So, we did it again, in the wilderness. This time we had more time to prepare, we were able to gather in larger groups. Safely with family and friends, in small pods. We had the time to prepare to order our food and make sure we had everything we needed. And we performed the rituals and said the prayers. And we remembered the hurried observance of just one year before.
The lasting effect of the Passover story is just that: it is a story.
A story that is told and retold as our own, as if we were slaves freed from Egypt. Each time we tell it as our own, we take it on and make it not about some distant ancient time and place, but about this moment, this time, this place, this experience. We give meaning to those moments in our lives through connecting them in story.
We have the power to find meaning and substance in our lives through telling our own stories. We can shape the narrative. We can craft our understanding of these moments through the stories we tell.
This is why the central observance of Passover, the Passover Seder, is structured around the retelling of that story. We use a book, called a Haggadah, which literally means “the retelling”. To retell the story.
‘Haggadah’ is the telling of our story. Is a powerful story, it is a powerful story because we are joined together both with those we sit around the table with and the zoom screen within our own families and communities, but also with Jews and members of Jewish communities around the world in telling the story. More members of Jewish communities tell the story of Passover at a seder each year than in any other Jewish holiday observance including attending services tonight.
It is a powerful story because we take ownership of the story. We tell the story in the first person, as if each of us personally went free from Egypt, as if each of us stood at the shores of the sea. We are able to make the story our own, because it is our own. “It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
It is a powerful story, because the story of the Exodus from Egypt is not only the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is a universal story, of enslavement, of struggle and challenge, of being controlled by forces more powerful than you are. Of the hope for freedom, the yearning to have independence and self-control. And the experience of beginning to see that hope realized.
It is a powerful story because stories are powerful. We know stories are powerful because we have heard and remembered them. We remember the universal stories, myths, and fables we heard as children. We connect with the stories our parents and grandparents told us, our own families stories. Science tells us of the power of stories as well. Listening to stories and telling stories releases hormones to give us more focus, more motivation, and help us remember the details better. Hearing a good story affords us an opportunity to identify with the story and the storyteller.
There is a story about The Dubner Maggid, an 18th Century Lithuanian Rabbi, who always had the right story to tell at the right moment. “How is it possible,” his students asked him, “that you always have the right story prepared for the right moment?” He answered by telling them another story:
There was a nobleman who heard a rumor of a young woman who was an expert archer. This woman was such an incredible archer, the rumor was that she hit 100 bullseyes in a row. So, the nobleman went searching for this talented Archer to learn the secret to her skill. And when he found her, the Archer showed him how she made sure to always hit a bullseye. Was it something special in the way she strung his bow? Did she have perfect eyesight? Was she able to control his breathing to hold perfectly still? No, none of those, the Archer said.
The secret to her skill was first, she shot the arrow, only then did she draw the circle around wherever that arrow had hit, thus always guaranteeing that she would hit a perfect bullseye.
Our life happens and the story we tell around it gives it context and meaning.
This past year and a half, since last Passover, COVID has shot arrow after arrow at us. Now, we can draw circles around each of those arrows, to give it meaning and nuance. Not being a thing that simply happened to us but an experience we have attached thought and significance to.
This experience of challenge and isolation, of struggle and frustration, of illness and death, of living through a pandemic, has taught us that we need a Haggadah, a telling of our own stories.
We need a telling of our stories so that we don’t forget them.
We need a telling so we can process the experience.
We need a telling so that we don’t return back to the lives that we lived before this experience without taking something from it.
We need a telling so that we can create meaning together.
So, perhaps tonight at dinner, or tomorrow at lunch, or next week, next month; begin your own haggadah, your own telling of your stories. Share them with the people around you and encourage them to share their stories with you. Not as a way to complain, or measure our woe, but to learn and share, to create meaning, to change our lives moving forward.
We cannot allow these stories to be kept inside of ourselves, to be forgotten. We need to process this experience, by sharing what each of us has gone through, what all of us have experienced. We need to remind ourselves of what the early days of this pandemic were like, and we need to process the experience.
Without our retelling, our stories, our experiences, are just arrows being shot into the abyss. With our retelling we can turn them into bullseyes.
1 Exodus 12:1-15
2 Deuteronomy 16:3
3 Adapted from A Hasidic Tale, Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another, Peninah Schram
4 “The king commanded all the people, “Offer the passover sacrifice to the Eternal your God as prescribed in this scroll of the covenant.” (II Kings 23:21)
5 “The returned exiles celebrated the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month, for the priests and Levites had purified themselves to a man; they were all pure. They slaughtered the passover offering for all the returned exiles, and for their brother priests and for themselves.” (Ezra 6:19-20)
6 Exodus 13:8
7 Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, pp. 7
8 Exodus 13:8
9 Adapted from Penchant for Parable, Because God Loves Stories, Steve Zeitlin