One of the simple but important sentences that we read on the Seder night is: “Even if all of us were wise, discerning, venerated, and completely knowledgeable in the Torah, it is still a mitzvah for us to tell the story of the deliverance from Egypt.”
This sentence presumes a very simple question: “If I already know the story what’s the point of telling it all over again?” The answer is that this is not the kind of knowledge that one gets all at once and then you have it. It is a different kind of knowledge that is capable of growing as we re-tell it and go deeper into it.
This reminds me of a passage from a beautiful book by Mary Katherine Bateson, called Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way. She writes,
“Planning for the classroom, we sometimes present learning in linear sequences, which may be what makes classroom learning onerous: this concept must precede that, must be fully grasped before the next is presented. Learning outside the classroom is not like that. Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications.”
Telling the Passover story at the seder is more like this kind of learning than classroom learning: it spirals past every year and we are meant to get new insights as we re-tell it in different circumstances, at different ages. When I was a single grad student studying Talmud I would have seders with my friends in which we’d stay up almost all night discussing the deeper meanings of the story. Now, with a couple of small kids, we usually get up from the table, put on costumes and act out the story in a fun and attention-grabbing way.
In this way the Passover story is a lot like the myths that many traditional cultures tell: they are often deceptively simple stories, but there are layers of meaning hidden, waiting to be revealed. Notice that I am using the term “myth” not in the way that we sometimes use it in everyday speech, as something that isn’t true: “It’s only a myth that someone buried a Red Sox uniform under the new Yankee Stadium.” I’m using myth in the old sense of the stories that cultures tell to try to convey and teach their deepest wisdom. These stories are the heritage of the whole culture, from children to the oldest and wisest, so they need to be both simple and deep at the same time.
We tell of the enslavement o the Israelites, the plagues and the “passing over:” when God/the Destroyer sees the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses their first born are saved while the first born of the Egyptians are killed. The Israelites carry their unrisen dough out of Egypt in the middle of the night; they get to the sea and are chased by Pharaoh’s chariots. The sea splits and they cross to freedom while the Egyptians drown in the sea.
Like many myths, it has elements that are harsh and cruel: We often struggle over the unfairness of the punishment of the Egyptians, or the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It is important to have these conversations and to confront the problematic aspects of this story.
But, remember that this is only one layer of the many meanings of the story. Another layer, for example, is a story about the birth of the Israelite nation. The Red Sea is the birth canal. The blood on the door posts is also a symbol for birth. When we look back on the story of the Exodus we see that most of the heroes are women and the stories relate to birth: the mid-wives saving the Israelite male babies, Miriam waiting for her baby brother to be taken out of the water (another birth metaphor), Zipporah, Moses’ wife circumcising their son on the roadside.
Telling the story of a birth is a way of talking about how we all come into this world: not on our own merits, but freely given the mysterious gift of life. There was no real merit that the Israelites had over the Egyptians. The ancient Rabbis told of how the Israelites were completely assimilated into Egyptian society. They worshiped idols just like the Egyptians! So, the Egyptians in the story are really a mirror of us. We could have been them and they could have been us. We could have not been born at all, but, instead, God gave us life.
This is the beginning of Israel, of Judaism: We recognize that we were given the gift of life. So we enter into a relationship with The Source of Life. This relationship is the Covenant, and all of Judaism flows from there.
The story of the Exodus is meant to be told on many levels: we can throw plastic frogs and act out the story of the “good guys and the bad guys” for the kids, we can struggle with the ethical issues of the “price of liberty” and the perennial struggle for human freedom, we can think of it as a metaphor for our own struggles to free ourselves from our own narrowness and constrictions (Egypt, mitzrayim in Hebrew, means narrow). All of these meanings are there to be explored.
Even if we’ve heard them all before, there is one element that is always new: I’m always a different person each time around. In discerning what the story of Egypt means I need to ask myself: what does the story mean to me this year? After all, the center of the Passover ritual is “in every generation each person must see him/herself as if s/he had come out of Egypt.”