By Rabbi Mark Melamut
Besides the cooking and cleaning, Passover is a holiday of favorites. Whether they are memories of sitting around the table or smells of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup, singing dayeinu or had gadya, leaning this way or that while drinking sweet wine, lounging on pillows or turning the house upside down to find the afikomen, they all seem to center around the telling of the Passover story. Of course, we all remember the story. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, they were redeemed, yada, yada, yada. Aren’t we already familiar with this story? Why is it that we are obligated to retell it each year?
We are, of course, a story-telling people by nature. Indeed, we often speak by telling a story. This is a type of Jewish talking. It’s no surprise then, that the telling of the Passover story is the primary mitzvah, along with eating matzah, of Passover. Our central task on Passover is to pass this story onto our children. Tradition teaches that this means not only to our children, but also to anyone gathered at the table, and even if one observes Passover alone, the requirement is to retell the story to oneself. But, once again, don’t we already know the details of this story? Perhaps we retell it then because we may forget a detail or two and need reminding. Or, it may be for an entirely different reason.
Here is a story, about the power of telling a story, that may help us understand a bit more. When the Hasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, was faced with a problem, he used to go to a specific place in the woods, light a fire, and pray, and what he prayed for would come true. A generation later, his disciple was faced with the same problem, and he used to go to the same place in the woods and say, “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still say the prayers,” and his prayer would come true. Another generation later, a disciple would go into the woods, saying, “We can no longer light the fire, and we no longer know the prayer, but we know the place in the woods where everything happened. That should be enough.” And, indeed it was. A final generation passes, and the last disciple, who sits on a golden throne in his palace, says, “We are no longer able to light the fire, we no longer know the prayer, and we do not know where it took place. But, we can tell of what happened.” And, this telling of the story is just as powerful as the acts of the generations that came before him.
The telling of stories is powerful. One reason we tell them is because we need guidance – for our specific location and stage in life, for inspiration and purpose, and for meaning. When we tell stories, especially the story of Passover, we simultaneously tell of those who lived before us, and we tell, or rather we live, our own story.
In our own telling of the story, past, present and future collide.
We connect to what came before us, as we sing, “dayeinu,” – May it be enough for us.
We ground ourselves in the present, as we recline – May it not be too hard for us.
And, we turn towards the future, as we open Elijah’s door – May our future be for a better world.
This year on Passover, we continue to tell the same story that we live to retell each year.
May your story be sweet, meaningful, and of course, kosher for Passover.
Wishing you a zissen Pesach/happy Passover,
Rabbi Mark Melamut