I had been writing short stories for a year and felt that I had mastered the form. So when Mrs. Hoos asked us to write “a tale of adventure,” I decided to experiment. I had never read a story with an unhappy ending. True, I wasn’t allowed to read anything for adults. But maybe the stories that grownups wrote for grownups were as sappy as the stuff they wrote for second graders.
Giddy with foreboding, I sat down and wrote a tale in which I trekked across the desert with a half-empty canteen. I came upon a water hole, hoping to replenish my supply, but a sign proclaimed this water POISON. A man expiring of thirst complicated matters by asking me to share. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t,” and continued on my way.
Now, I usually got back my assignments with the teacher’s emphatic GREAT! in red marker across the top. This time, Mrs. Hoos had scratched out the last few lines of my story and replaced them with her own. In her version, I shared my water with the dying man and we both walked out alive. “And I was never so selfish again” the new conclusion read.
Even then I knew that an issue of profound literary and philosophical importance was at stake. The entire point of the story was that the water in my canteen wasn’t enough to keep two people alive. If a man I’d never met asked me to give up my life in order that he might live, I sure as hell would need to ponder the dilemma.
I didn’t have the writerly technique to compose an internal monologue conveying my moral agony at denying the man’s request, or an ending that implied the guilt that would haunt my now-ruined life. Nor did I have the courage to argue with Mrs. Hoos.
My dissatisfaction simmered, inexpressible, until the following week, when my family sat down to Seder. For all its miracles, the Haggadah seemed the only realistic portrayal of human life I had ever read.
The drawings of a muscular Egyptian taskmaster whipping a Hebrew’s back, an emaciated cow bellowing in pain and a half-crazed old man scratching furiously at his boils disturbed me but entranced me.
The Hebrews who so reluctantly followed Moses out of Egypt, grumbling all the way, were Jews I could recognize; if the Almighty Himself had tried to convince the members of our congregation to change a single detail of their lives, they would have declined to renew His contract.
I had never encountered anyone as mean as Pharaoh. Killing babies was an act of such staggering evil that I could barely stretch my mind to let it in. But the snatches of nightly news fluttering beyond my consciousness in those years of Vietnam made the evil in the Haggadah seem familiar – and true.
Like my story for Mrs. Hoos, the Book of Exodus described a trek across burning sands. Perhaps for that reason, I soon became obsessed, not only with the Haggadah, but with the story’s hero, Moses. Here was a man who had invented a religion that survived to our own day.
Terrified by the dawning knowledge that one day I would die, I was comforted to think that I might do what Moses did and create something so momentous I might be remembered for generations. (I would be embarrassed to admit that I hoped as a child to grow up to be Moses, but it strikes me now, in middle age, that unless a child of seven dreams such grandiose dreams, she won’t retain the shred of confidence she needs at forty four to get through an average day.)
I loved how human Moses was, how flawed. He killed a man, then buried him in the sand and hoped no one would find the body. God spoke from a burning bush, and Moses argued with what He said. And that mistake he made at Meribah – how could he continue to doubt God’s power after the wonders He’d already wrought?
Moses’ sin at Meribah kept him from entering the Promised Land and prevented Exodus from having the kind of shmaltzy ending I so loathed. Although the Hebrews entered Canaan, the innocent Egyptians who got killed along the way and the many sins committed by all those stiff-necked Jews made the story so complex it engaged my thoughts for years.
I can understand those parents who blanch when they reach the part in the Haggadah about the slaying of the first-born sons. Let’s cut that out, they say. Let’s make the story nicer. But the stories that children trust are stories that tell the truth. Taskmasters wielding whips, genocidal tyrants and devastating plagues may upset them in the short term. But the assurance that their parents’ stories, no matter how fantastic, somehow told the truth will eventually calm their souls.
Not long ago, my son brought home an assignment. “Describe what you would do to bring about world peace,” the teacher asked. Usually, Noah has no trouble filling up a page, but this time he squirmed and pounded his forehead with his fist. “It’s a stupid question,” he said, “I’m only 10 years old. All these grownups have been trying for hundreds of years to stop wars. How am I supposed to do it?”
“Well,” I suggested, “why don’t you write about how hard it would be for anyone, let alone a kid, to bring about world peace?” He stared at me as if I had given him permission to rob a store. “I can’t do that.”
“Why not? As long as you don’t say it in a way that makes your teacher feel bad, you can tell her what you think. Even if she fails you, telling the truth is more important.”
The look that came over his face was the sort of peaceful countenance we pray every Friday night for God to grant our kids. And his teacher, bless her soul, handed back his essay with “I’m glad you told the truth!” in red marker across the top … and a nice, big fat “A.”
(Eileen Pollack’s monthly column, “By the Book” appears on JBooks.com, a member of the Jewz.com Media Network. She is the author of a collection of short stories, “Rabbi in the Attic,” and a novel, “Paradise, New York.”)