By Dan Brosgol
I remember when the trailers for The Prince of Egypt came out in 1998 and the tagline said it was “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” This, of course, built on the longstanding annual showing of “The Ten Commandments” on ABC around Easter, which told the same story, albeit without CGI, with a cast of thousands, and certainly with a whole lot of artistic license and questionable Anglicization of Biblical Hebrew names.
Both of those now-legendary movies tell an adapted version of the Passover story, one which Jews around the world will tell all over again this Friday and Saturday night when the holiday begins. It’s a tale that many of us know well, one of plagues, miracles, destruction, redemption, and eventually revelation, one that has spawned music, poetry, art, and commentary for over 2500 years…and also my favorite piece at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, “The Seventh Plague of Egypt” by John Martin.
With that being said, both the origins and historicity of the Passover story are murky, at best. The Torah’s written record of the events in Egypt from 1400 BCE was most likely written down about 700 years after the events would have taken place, and I dare say some of the details may have been lost during that time.
(That is unless one accepts that God handed the Torah to Moses at Sinai-which millions of people do believe…)
Beyond the Torah’s retelling of the events in Egypt and at Mount Sinai, the Haggadah, the guidebook to the celebration that participants read from at the Seder, could not have been written until the year 170 at the earliest- or more than 1500 years after the fact. Despite that distance from the historical moment (or ahistorical moment), one would be tempted to think that the Haggadah would be rife with mentions of Moses and the like… but curiously, Moses’ name is mentioned only once, and in passing.
In lieu of an ode to Moses and a retelling of the stories from Exodus, we instead have a symposium of song, food, prayer, and debate, a perfect conflation of Greek and Jewish philosophy which so defined the early centuries of Diaspora Jewish life. To the Rabbis and scholars who wrote the Haggadah’s text, clearly the importance of Passover was not rooted in remembering the actions of Moses, but rather in preserving the historical memories of the epic story through a formulaic recitation of a Rabbinic discussion.
And in what could be considered a remarkable exemplar of Jewish survival, such a ritual was preserved for nearly 2000 years as the Haggadah and the observation of Passover sustained and nourished diaspora Jewish life from the time of the Talmud all the way to the age of modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. The fact that the Haggadah concludes with the exclamation “L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim– Next year in Jerusalem” reminds us of that in very real terms.
But perhaps the most significant line in the Haggadah is when we are reminded that “B’chol dor vador, chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo, k’illuhu yatzah mimitzrayim… In every generation, every Jew must consider that he, himself was personally redeemed from Egypt.”
This line, in addition to an almost complete removal of Moses from the Haggadah’s text, gives us Passover’s most important lesson. It reminds us that above all else, each participant at the Seder must find their own meaning in the story and not have to rely on others. Redemption begins in each of every one of us- not on external actors and factors; if you can’t see yourself in the story, you’re missing the point.
So maybe Passover is a holiday about slaves and freedom, of sibling rivalry and God freeing his chosen people. That’s a story worth telling every year, for sure, and go ahead and watch The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments to get ready to celebrate.
Or maybe Passover is a holiday that reminds us that in every generation the continuity of the Jewish people for 4000 years is dependent on each individual finding meaning and connection to our traditions and stories. I’m into that one, as well.
Or maybe it’s an encouragement to take a stroll through the history and legend attached to the holiday and find new interpretations (see: oranges on the seder table, Miriam’s Cup in addition to Elijah’s Cup, social justice Seders, interfaith Seders, or the theory that the Hebrews were actually the ‘Apirus and were never slaves…)
Whatever you choose to do to get ready for Passover, make sure to remember that it’s your job to ask new questions and make new meaning.
And a final note for this year.
I would be remiss if I did not remind everyone of the darker lines from the Haggadah, which interrupts our festive asking, eating, and singing, and tells us that
“Vehi sheamda lavotenu velanu/Shelo echad bilvad ‘amad ‘alenu lechalotenu/Ella shebechol dor vador ‘omdim ‘alenu lechalotenu/Ve haKadosh Baruch Hu matzilenu mi-yadam”
“The promise made to our forefathers holds also for us/For not just one enemy has risen against us to destroy us/But in every generation they rise against us to destroy us/And the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands.”
5779 has been a difficult year–one in which a gunman killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October; in which vandals desecrated a Jewish cemetery in Fall River with hateful graffiti just a few weeks ago; and one in which anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe have reached alarming levels. Add that to the burning of black churches in the South and the recent massacre at the mosque in New Zealand, and one is left to reflect on just how imperfect the world still is.
In the face of those reminders, I take solace in the warm embrace of the Bedford community of not just Jews, but people of all faith traditions, races, colors, genders, and creeds, and wish all of you a happy Passover, a festive Easter, and a spring full of renewal and happiness.