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Storytelling lends even more magic to the Exodus saga

Dasee Berkowitz practicing her reading and storytelling skills with son Tamir.  (Courtesy Dasee Berkowitz)

Dasee Berkowitz practicing her reading and storytelling skills with son Tamir. (Courtesy Dasee Berkowitz)

NEW YORK (JTA) — My children have carved out a role for me as storyteller, especially at bedtime. After reading the requisite three books cuddled on my son’s bed, he makes a soft demand: “Now tell a story.”

In the late hour, my mind wanders to the outskirts of creativity. To produce a little late-night magic, superpower strength and some basic facts are mixed together in the telling. But instead of drifting off to sleep, my son stays keenly engaged — interjecting, questioning, elaborating and correcting. When a story gets really good he’ll insist on acting out parts. While I never really follow a straight narrative line — who can keep any logical sequencing so late at night? — eventually we wind up with a happy ending.

Storytelling is essential to being human; it’s the way we make sense of our lives and derive meaning. Telling (and retelling) the same story as a group can have the same effect. It gives us a sense of who we are and shapes how we act and interact with the world around us.

During the Passover season, we all become storytellers par excellence.

The Exodus from Egypt is one of the central Jewish storylines. At the most basic level, we are commanded to “tell your child” the story of the Exodus and “all that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt,” as it says in the Haggadah. But if we were only to tell the literal story, we would open up the book of Exodus and begin reading. We don’t. With our Haggadahs in hand, we weave together a powerful story, filled with it’s own kind of magic, which includes rituals and texts that date from the Bible, the Mishnah and the Midrash.

With the stated goals that “in every generation one should see oneself as if one had [personally] gone out of Egypt,” we are invited to add our own voice to the story. In fact, the Haggadah states, “all who expound upon the Passover story shall be praised.”

Reading ourselves into the story of the Exodus of Egypt is essential to the Passover ritual. As Avivah Zornberg, a Torah scholar pointed out in a radio interview on American Public Media, “It’s not telling the story so as to remember what happened. It happened so as to be the stimulus for a … meaningful story." In the end, she said, "you might find yourself telling a better story than what is actually written in the text. So long as there is some connection.”

And while “storytelling” on seder night might be known as one of the longest storytelling hours around (“when are we going to eat, already?”), how will the story about the Exodus from Egypt become relevant to you as you retell it this Passover? What will be your way?

Are you a parent or grandparent wondering how you can make the ancient tradition come to life for your children and grandchildren?

Seder night is the quintessential teaching tool. We encourage children to ask questions and seek answers. Toward the very beginning of the maggid, the “telling,” are the Four Questions. When the youngest at the table (whether a toddler, a teenager or a young adult) reads the questions, create an opening and see what kinds of questions the children might have about Passover. For the young ones, it might be about what they see on the seder table (add some things to pique their interest, like candies or plastic frogs). For older children, the questions might have to do with the central themes of the seder, like what freedom from slavery really means for us today.

Are you a spiritual seeker?

Focus on your preparation for Passover this year. The ritual of "bedikat chametz," searching for leavened bread, offers a perfect opportunity. Chametz  symbolizes excess and all that “puffs us up.” By contrast, matzah is simple food without any of the extra leavening to complicate matters. Passover is a time to return to simplicity. As we dust away the crumbs in our search, consider the things that “puff you up” or get in your way of connecting to your true essence. Then take those last pieces of crumbs and burn them the next morning. This cleansing of your home might take on a purifying aspect for you personally.

Are you unhappy with the status quo?

Just think about how many questions there are throughout the Haggadah. The Four Questions at the start of the seder, then another set of questions that the four children ask. The questions aren’t placed there just to engage children. Asking questions is a profound act; it signifies that we are unsettled and eager to move things forward. Asking questions is liberating.

And before any question is asked, at the very start of the maggid we say, “This is the bread of affliction … Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat … This year we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year may we be free people.”

The positioning of the statement about the bread of affliction right before the Four Questions makes a profound statement. Perhaps we need to first envision the ideal situation and then ask questions as a way of shaking up the status quo and potentially achieving profound social change.

What questions do you have for yourself this Passover that can make steps toward that change happen?

Are you (or are your guests) marginally connected to Jewish life?

When we come to the section of the four children, we read that in response to the simple child, who doesn’t know how to ask a question, as "patakh lo," ordinarily translated as “you prompt him,” but literally means “you open him up.” How might you engage those at your seder table who don’t see themselves as a part of the Jewish story? Consider asking them about their personal history and the Passover memories they have from their parents and grandparents. Have them share those memories at the table.

During “Dayenu,” after reading the traditional section, invite your guests to add their own words of “dayenu.” Move from the global to the local and the personal. Some examples might include global concerns, such as “When we care for our environment the way we care for our own backyards, dayenu”; local ones, such as “When we care for the homeless in our community the way we care for our own families, dayenu”; and personal ones, like “When we cherish our Jewish inheritance, the way we cherish fine jewels, dayenu.” Encourage people to make up their own versions.

The seder experience requires us to be engaged storytellers, not passive participants. While the storyline might meander a bit from the script we have before us, as my late-night musings with my children, strive to see yourself inside the Passover story.

What is the story you need Passover to tell you this year? 

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