Sunday, April 12, 2009

From Slaves to Seder to Stories

--By Hannah

I really love Passover. The Seder has always been one of my favorite family gathering times -- I think I like it so much because it’s kind of stuck in time. If you think about it, a seder is like a living fossil, a bunch of traditions, practices, and readings that preserve this central kernel of memory. We add to the memory over time with new traditions (hey, my family puts an orange on our seder plate) and new memories from our own historical contexts. The point of the whole thing is that we’re supposed to pretend -- no, we’re supposed to actually remember, like it happened to us -- that we were slaves in Egypt.

The Haggadah is pretty damn assertive about this. We read, “this year we are slaves. Next year may we be free.” Even though I’ve been to 46 seders over the course of my lifetime, and have led seders for exactly six years running, I still have kind of a hard time wrapping my head around the whole thing. How, exactly, am I supposed to remember leaving Egypt -- an event which happened approximately 3,287 years before I was born? What, really, does that mean?

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m not going to talk about Torah even a little bit today. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the texts that comprise the seder are deeply rooted in rabbinic literature and Torah. What I will do, however, is tell you a story that I learned at a seder, a story about remembering:

When the founder of modern Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, saw danger threatening the Jews, he used to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. He would light a special fire, say a certain prayer, and the danger would be averted. Later, when his disciple was worried about the fate of the Jews, he would go into the exact same place in the forest and say, “God! Listen! I don’t know how to light the fire of the Baal Shem Tov, but I know the right place and I know how to say the right prayer.”

When the disciple of the disciple desperately needed to save the Jewish people, he would go into the forest and say, “I can’t light the fire. I don’t even know the prayer. I do know the place, though.”

Eventually, it came time for the disciple of the disciple of the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov to intercede to help the Jewish people in times of trouble. Sitting in his house, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I can’t light the fire. I don’t know the prayer. I can’t even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this has to be enough.” And it was sufficient.

This is pretty much exactly how I feel about Passover. So much time and history has passed since the Israelites made their exodus from Egypt. Heck, I’ve never even been to Egypt. So much about the lives of the Israelites is just completely unimaginable to me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a slave, I don’t know what it’s like to pray to God for alleviation from an oppressor, and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to make a paschal sacrifice.

But I do know the story. I know the story of the Exodus; I know the story of the Haggadah; I know the story told by my family during the seder, going back hundreds of years. So, even though I don’t know the fire, the prayer, or the place, I can still remember the story and relive the history of my family, my community, and my people. And this, I think, is more than sufficient.

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