Parshat HaChodesh: The Power of Storytelling on Pesach
Na’amit Sturm Nagel (Midreshet Lindenbaum 2003-2004) is an English Teacher at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, California, and Associate Director of The Shalhevet Institute, a center for Jewish ideas and learning in L.A.
As a lover of books and stories, Pesach has always spoken to me because it performs the complicated task of connecting future generations to an ancient past through the medium of storytelling. In Pesachim it says:
“In every generation, a person is obligated לראות את עצמו / to view himself as if he went out of Egypt” (Talmud Pesachim, 116a).
This is the central mitzvah of the chag. The Rambam codifies this mitzvah by saying:” מצוות עשה של תורה לספר בניסים ונפלאות שעשו אבותינו במצרים / It is a positive commandment to tell [the stories] of the miracles and wonders that were done for our forefathers in Egypt.” The mitzvah is in the storytelling, לספר.
While there are many curious elements about this commandment, I have always wondered why storytelling is the medium through which we fulfill this mitzvah, especially since reenactment seems to be at the heart of the biblical commandment. In reading Parshat HaChodesh this week we see how even while Moshe and Aharon are being given the instructions for how to put the blood on the doorposts during makot bechorot, the next pasuk tells them how they will commemorate the action they are doing as chukat olam, “an institution for all time.” One sees how the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim became symbolic in the very moment it was happening. While enacting the korban Pesach, Moshe and Aharon already had to learn about how that action was going to have lasting resonance through the future symbolic reenactment of eating matzah.
As a result, one might have expected the Talmud to ask us to fulfill the mitzvah mentioned in Parshat Hachodesh– “היום הזה לכם לזכרון / this day shall be to you one of remembrance”– in a different way. On Succot we build a Succah, on Shavuot we stay up and learn, on Chanukah we light a menorah, so why not have us bake matzah, pack our bags and flee our suburban neighborhoods on the Seder night?
Chazal, however, were in tune to the human psyche and realized that stories can impact people more than performance. When you read or listen to a story, you are not retracing the steps of the characters or people in their stories; rather, you are seeing the world through their eyes. Our sages knew there was something uniquely powerful and empowering about storytelling.
In fact, modern researchers have found quantifiable evidence that stories have a unique ability to change people’s points of view and that much of what we know about life comes from reading stories. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, explains how storytelling “not only weaves together all the details of an experience when it’s being encoded but enhances the network of nodes through which all those details can be retrieved and recalled. Research shows that we remember details of things much more effectively when they are embedded in a story. Telling and being moved to action by them is in our DNA.” If we are to feel as if “we” ourselves went out of Mizrayim, we must incorporate that experience into who we are as people.
The power of storytelling lies in the way that the listener or reader plays an active role. On Seder night we do what I do with my English class when we read novels: we analyze the text to understand it on a deeper level. We closely read the language of the pesukim starting with “Arami oved avi,” to think about what is below the surface meaning of the text. We talk about the deeper meaning behind the story’s symbols, Pesach, Matzah and Maror. We think about the various places that could be the beginning of our story when it comes to Rav’s opinion that our story starts with “מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינו / At first our ancestors were idol worshipers…,” whereas Shmuel believes we must begin with: “עבדים היינו / We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” We try both beginnings so that we can piece the narrative together. We even engage in a game of mathematics for people who connect more with numbers than words. The authors of the Haggadah made the telling of the story an active process, rather than making us passive listeners.
This close reading is all the more powerful because it enables you to feel as if you have experienced the communal Exodus story of a nation by personalizing the narrative. Some argue that Moshe was actually purposefully left out of the Seder narrative so that the story would not work around one specific central protagonist (which in Tanakh it does). Instead, the authors of the Haggadah wanted each individual person to be able to be the protagonist of the story by engaging in it in their own unique way.
The story has left room for modern day Jews to both experience a piece of their history, and also connect that history to their modern lives. The adaptability of the narrative also allowed Passover metaphors, motifs, and rituals to become part of many different movements. The efforts of the American Jewish political movement to free Soviet Jewry during the 1970s and 1980s used this narrative, as did African Americans struggling under slavery in America. These cases are evidence of the transformative power of storytelling as a means of creating agency amidst disempowering world events.
This Pesach, we should challenge ourselves, לראות, to see ourselves, as if we went out of Egypt by really personalizing the story of the Haggadah and placing ourselves in the narrative while telling the story of B’nei Yisrael’s redemption.