Owning the story, before giving it over
By: Rabbi Dovid Samuels
Who’s listening, anyway?
If we look for the festival of Pesach in the Torah, we will not find it referred to as ‘Pesach’, but rather as Chag HaMatzos – the festival of Matzos. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that when we mention Pesach, we refer to it by praising the greatness of Hashem as He passed (pasach) over the Jewish houses in Egypt. However, when Hashem mentions Pesach in His Torah, He refers to it as the Festival of Matzos, as a praise for the Jewish people, who spend the chag performing His mitzvos, such as matzah. On this holy night, as we sing the praises of Hashem who saved us, He, in turn, sings the praises of His chosen and beloved people who perform His mitzvos. This is highlighted by an interesting gemora which tells us that Hashem Himself dons tefillin. In our tefillin, we have statements about Hashem and His greatness, whereas in Hashem’s tefillin, there are verses about the uniqueness and specialness of the Jewish people. As we celebrate Him, He celebrates us.
There is a powerful teaching in the Zohar that says that when each and every Jew sits down and tells over the Pesach Haggadah with joy, he is invited to participate in the ultimate rejoicing in the next world, since he has caused Hashem to rejoice at the story of the Exodus. And, as he tells the story, Hashem gathers His entire heavenly entourage of angels and says to them: “Go, and listen to the praises that my children are telling about Me as they celebrate My salvation of them.” At this moment, they all descend to our Pesach seder, and listen to each and every word of this holy and awesome story. Do we realise just what’s going on when we read the Haggadah?
My Mehadrin Seder
On Sukkos, we try to buy the most beautiful arba minim we can find. On Chanukah, we light with the best oil, and with the most beautiful menorah we can afford. But on Pesach, with a heavy task ahead of us and a table filled with heavenly spectators, how should we go about making sure the seder is as “mehadrin” and as perfect as possible? The answer to this lies not in aesthetics, although a beautiful setting will obviously help. Nor is the answer as simple as buying the matzos with the best hechsher, although that too might add to the evening. The answer, instead, lies in the quality of us, the story tellers. How much feeling and excitement are we pouring into our story? It is not so much what the mitzvah can give to us, but rather how much of ourselves can we give over to the mitzvah.
As with anything in life, we do not ascribe greatness to, for example, an architect simply because he built a large building. Nor do we ascribe greatness to a musician who composed a lengthy symphony. What matters is the quality of the building; the detail of the composition. So too, our Pesach seder will not be measured by its length, nor by the size of the table. It will be measured by the quality of the mitzvah of telling the story. Was there meat? Yes. Was there wine? Yes. But the real question is: was there emotion, excitement, love, and enthusiasm in the story?
So…how do I do that?
Nowadays, a lot of us apparently arrive at the opposite of a Pesach seder. Instead of the father telling the children in his house the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the children come loaded with all sorts of details and information from school, and they are the ones telling the story to us! This observation was presented to Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, ztz”l, and he was asked if this was a problem. He replied that, certainly, the mitzvah is for the father to tell the story over to his children, but if by doing so they become so enthusiastic that they start telling the story to him, this is a fulfilment of the mitzvah, and, by prompting your child to tell his part of the story, it is as if you have said it yourself. The more excitement, the more flavour, the more passion you can inject into the storytelling, the better the mitzvah is, and the more holy effect it will have on those who are listening.
But this doesn’t start when you open your mouth. This starts in the preparation before we tell the story. We have to find ourselves in the zone where we are excited and thrilled to be performing this mitzvah: talking about the greatness of G-d; His love for each and every one of us; our unbelievable survival; and instilling in our children the faith and belief that will help them survive as Jews. After our emotional and psychological preparation, the story won’t merely come out of our mouths, but rather our hearts. And, as we are taught, words which emanate from the heart enter the heart [of those listening]. Like a young child who just came back from an amazing holiday, he wants to tell you about each and every thing he did and saw, with painstaking detail. You could try and push him off until tomorrow, but he can’t wait to tell you everything. The seder is our story, and we can’t wait any more to tell every single detail.
I don’t have all night!
So, to tell a story like this we might need a lot of time. This could well go early into the morning. Although such a thing would be wonderful, this is not the intention. The detail and urgency in our storytelling isn’t going to be measured by time; it is measured by you. But, what about the rabbis in the Haggadah? Didn’t they stay up all night until the morning telling the story? True, they did, but the intention of that event is definitely not that we should force ourselves to crawl through the night in absolute exhaustion, reading an encyclopaedia of the Exodus while dozing off in-between. What we are being taught by that episode is that the rabbis were so enthusiastic and passionate about the story of Hashem’s relationship with His beloved people that they simply lost track of time. They were so “in-to-it” that time simply flew by. In fact, the Chasam Sofer says that the idea of eating the Afikomen in haste is that we should all become so enthralled in the story that we lose track of time and have to eat the meal quickly so that we will still be able to consume the Afikomen before midnight.
So, do we have to say over every Midrash about the plague of locusts? Or every fact about the frogs? Not at all. If we are able to tell the story like we want to tell the story, like time doesn’t matter, then even if we leave out some details, the message is heard by the children. They might be listening to you talking about the river turning to blood, but what they are hearing you say is: “This is important; this excites me; Hashem loves me and He loves you; He will always look after us;” and that is going to stay with them for the rest of their life.
But what about me?
So, if you’re a talented storyteller and you have a thing for the theatrics, Pesach is your night. But for your average guy, especially after a gruelling few weeks of cleaning and preparing for the festival, this seems like a pretty tall order indeed. But we have to know that this is well within our ability. Rabbi Shlomo Kluger said that anyone who has Jewish blood flowing through his veins is capable of telling this story; and telling it well. Why? Because this is the story of our survival. These were miracles that happened to each and every single one of our ancestors. And they are the forerunner to every single act of salvation that we have experienced throughout our history. The more real we make it, the more close to home it becomes, and the more we are able to tell it with passion and emotion. This is really the responsibility of all of us on Pesach night: to view yourself like you left Mitzrayim.
This is our night to escape; any struggle, any fear. Our own personal Mitzrayim can dissolve in a second on this night. We are talking about ourselves in the Haggadah. We are celebrating the salvation of our very own children. We are telling them the story that will keep them alive and secure in their faith. We are singing about miracles that saved our lives, and because of which we are here, today, with the opportunity to connect to the Creator of heaven and earth amongst His treasured nation.
Look on the bright side
In our people’s history, we could easily tell stories of pain, of loss, of sorrow. But each and every one of those stories ends with triumph, with rebuilding, with an even greater dedication to the service of Hashem. He saved us from Mitzrayim, and He saved us from Spain, and He saved us from Germany, and He can save each and every one of us from our own tests. We need to hand this message over to our children; that the story of the Exodus didn’t end in Egypt. It only began there. If a child is having a hard time in school, he needs to be told about Yetzias Mitzrayim. If he is struggling to connect to his religion, he needs to be told about Yetzias Mitzrayim. We need to tell the story of a magnificent people, who are totally dedicated to serve their Creator. A people who have fought for G-dliness; who have built families, communities; who have persevered; and have, with the help of Hashem, always survived.
After four cups of wine, we can take an honest look at how the Jewish people help each other in a time of need. We can reflect lovingly at the wisdom of the Torah we were given. We can appreciate the comfort and solace found in the words of Tehillim. We can recite the Song of Songs – the love song between the Jewish people and their Beloved. And as we tell the story of our Beloved, our Beloved tells the story of us. “Go, and listen to the praises that my children are telling about Me.”