Why Is It Important to Tell Stories?

In a little over a week, we will (G!D willing) all be celebrating Pesach at a seder (in person or virtually). Below are some selections designed to add to your seder or your understanding of the evening. (Next week we will be offering even more!)

Why Is It Important to Tell Stories?

Because stories contain powerful messages that can inspire us to go beyond what we think is possible.
In 1940 the Germans invaded Holland and began to round up the Jews for what they termed “resettlement.” The Dutch Calvinist church helped to organize an underground movement that hid Jews and resistance fighters from the Nazis.
One of the ministers of this church named Frits de Zwerver would go from church to church in Holland on his bicycle to preach a message of strength to the congregants.
Soon the Germans confiscated all the rubber they could find for the war effort, including the rubber on bicycle wheels. But Fritz wouldn’t give up. He simply built wooden wheels for his bicycle, even though it was much harder to ride on them.
Then the Germans appointed pro-Nazi Dutch officials to sit in the Calvinist churches to spy on the people and report if they were doing anything suspicious. But Fritz wouldn’t give up. He would go to the churches anyway.
When it was time to give a sermon, he would open the Bible to Exodus chapter 1 and read the story of the midwives in Egypt who were ordered by the Pharoah to kill all the Hebrew baby boys but who disobeyed.
Then he would ask the congregation, “Don’t we live in similar times? Who is the Pharoah of today?” And they would answer, “Hitler!”
“And who are the babies whom the Pharoah is trying to kill?” And they would answer, “The Jews!”
“And now, who will be the midwives who will have the courage to outsmart the Pharoah and protect the babies and all those being persecuted?” Then he would look into the faces of each person sitting in the church one by one and ask them: Will you be a midwife and protect a baby?”
At the end of the service, he would leave and despite the danger to himself and his family, he would seek out another congregation to visit and inspire. 
The remarkable thing-- in every congregation he spoke at, there was at least 1 family-- and often many, many more—who contacted the underground resistance and volunteered to hide Jews and others.
That’s the power of a story!

A Passover "Play" by Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

The seder is really [sacred] dinner theatre. The guests at the table are the actors in the play. The script is the haggadah. And the food and drink on the table are the props. Starting from this premise, it all becomes a little easier to understand and a lot easier to maneuver through. The most important line in the entire haggadah is this: "In every generation, each individual should feel as though s/he went out of Egyptian slavery personally."

  1. How will you make your seder come alive like [sacred] dinner theater this year?
  2. How can you internalize your script (haggadah) to make it sound and feel like your words and fit with your character?
  3. Do you agree with Rabbi Nemitoff’s statement regarding the most important line in the entire haggadah? Why or why not?

The Passover Paradox –Why So Many Fours? by Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller

Some of the most moving and conspicuous parts of the Passover Seder have a surprising common denominator -- the repetition of the number four. There are four cups of wine, four sons, and four questions. And we are moved to ask: Why four?
And so we learn that the number four is the number more than any other that encapsulates the message of exile and redemption, otherwise it would not be the one used.
Let us examine first the makeup of what we call exile. From a Judaic perspective, exile means far more than physical expulsion from one's natural home. The deepest level of exile is estrangement. We were (and to a degree are still) expelled not only from our land, but also from ourselves.
Our Sages tell us that the Egyptian exile is the prototype for all the exiles of Jewish history. The Hebrew meaning of the word for Egypt, Mitzrayim is "restriction." The physical restrictions that were imposed upon us during the slavery merely reflected the spiritual repression of our self-definition as a people.…
The number four symbolizes this very real form of exile of the soul. It is the number that symbolizes the material realities that surround us, because the physical world is very much a place in which the number four reverberates. There are four directions (east, west, north, south), four seasons, (summer, winter, spring, fall) four basic compounds (fire, water, earth, air).
While the conflict between the material world and the spiritual one can lead to the soul entering a state of ever-deepening exile, it can have the opposite effect as well. Often times we must learn who we are not and who we would never want to be before we discover our true identity. This is, in fact, the beginning of redemption…
Once this is clear to us, we can understand the usage of the number four in the Haggadah. The four questions address themselves to the paradox of Passover. By implication we ask:

  • If we are free, why do we still eat matzah -- "the bread of affliction”?
  • If we want to recall the bitterness of servitude by eating bitter herbs, why do we recline like royalty?
  • Why do we dip our food luxuriously in what represents our tears?

The answer is that the contrasting aspects of the experience were both necessary for our redemption…The exile is as much a part of the process of redemption as the rescue is. This creates a paradox for some of us.
It embitters the wicked son. He wants to retreat back into the comforting complacency of spiritual exile. It mystifies the son who no longer believes in answers. We must use the empathy and compassion that a mother would have for her child to free him enough to listen.
But the same paradox frees the simple son to redefine what the experience means to him. The freest of all is the wise son. Once the door is open, he asks the most honest question of all “How shall I serve the God who has made me free?”
The answers provided by the Haggadah give us the key to true freedom. Exile means learning who we are not and who we would never want to be; redemption means discovering our true identity.

Pesach in the Time of Pandemic by Rabbi Sid Schwartz

The seder itself is structured so that we first re-enact and fully encounter the hardship of slavery before we celebrate the miracle of redemption.
In the first part of the seder, we introduce matzah with the line: “ha lachma anya…” “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate”. But by the end of the seder, matzah is the bread of redemption; the bread of resilience. It is what sustained our ancestors through the desert. But it is the same matzah; the same ingredients!
What changed?
What changed was a spiritual transformation in how our ancestors understood their experience.
They came to see that within suffering and loss it is possible to find resilience and hope. This is the healing balm of religion.
The theme of Pesach is m’avdut l’cherut, from slavery to freedom; from oppression to redemption”.
This become the signature master story of Jewish history as well, and our people have experienced this arc of redemption time and again throughout the centuries.
The framework itself shapes our reality. It keeps us from dwelling on our troubles and sorrows; it forces us to lift up our heads to look at the rainbow on the horizon. Sometimes it even allows us to see a rainbow that is not there.
It should not then be surprising that when the Jewish people reclaimed its homeland in the Land of Israel, the national anthem that was written and adopted was called Hatikvah, “the hope”
One of the most beloved songs of the seder is the Dayenu. The passage breaks down the Exodus story into about 20 specific elements of the redemption and, after each, we recite, dayenu, “it would have been enough.” 
If we got out of Egypt but did not get the Sabbath, dayenu. If we got the Sabbath and not the Torah, dayenu. If we got the Torah and were not able to enter into the Land of Israel, dayenu
[T]he prayer is better understood as a gratitude prayer in which we say that we appreciate what we get or have. Our natural inclination is to take for granted that which we have or get and to then to feel shortchanged for that which we don’t have.
Looking over our shoulders with envy at what others’ have is a most unfortunate habit of the human mind that we need to work hard to overcome. Thus, comes the Dayenu prayer to remind us that abundance is a state of mind. If we are in a perpetual competition with everyone else on the planet over blessings, privileges and possessions, we will invariably, live with a sense of scarcity.
What an apt lesson for a time of pandemic. So much of what we love about life seems off-limits: gatherings with family, friends and community; organized group fitness and sports; travel; movies, concerts and entertainment; eating out at restaurants; a good hug. And yet, should we not “count our blessings?”
My brother in law, Rabbi Eliott Perlstein, who serves Ohev Shalom Congregation in Bucks County, PA, joined us for our Second Seder. He shared with us an interpretive Dayenu that he authored for a time of pandemic. It included these lines:
  • If only I can appreciate that meaning in life is not only in “doing” but also in simply “being.” Dayenu.
  • If only we realize that this virus recognizes no separation by borders, status, religion or race. Dayenu.                                          
  • If only we can be inspired by those on the front lines, risking everything and become more giving and dedicated to the welfare of others as a result. Dayenu.

Shabbat Shalom