I would like to share the following thought for Pesach in memory of Rivka Haut, z”l, who passed away a little over a week ago. Rivka was, as a recent obituary put it, a fearless warrior, a warrior for the cause for justice for agunot and for creating a space for women within the Orthodox community. She was also a dear friend of mine, who was a regular attender of my daf yomi shiur. She always engaged the daf, and forced all of us to engage the daf, with honesty, sensitivity, and a moral sensibility. Whenever I would prepare the daf and encounter a passage that was difficult in some way – certain statements about non-Jews, the am ha’aretz, women, or the like – I knew that she would not let me gloss over it and that we would have to grapple with it together in shiur the next day. What I most distinctly remember is one day when I was struggling with a text of this sort, she said to me: “You don’t have to defend the Gemara. My issue is not with the Gemara or the Rabbis. My issue is with how this text is taught today. How in the yeshivot it is taught without being problematized. We have to take responsibility for the text – how we learn it, how we teach it, and how we tell it over.”
This powerful point – taking responsibility for our text, our story – is at the core of the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus on the seder night. The focus on speech and telling a story is central to the idea of freedom.The very word “Pesach” is interpreted homiletically as peh-sach – a mouth that speaks. For when Bnei Yisrael were slaves, all they could do is cry out – va’yizaku. It was only when they prepared to be free that they could imagine what it would mean to tell their story: “And it will be when your child asks you tomorrow, what is this service to you? And you shall say, it is a Pesach to God, who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel…”.
This is what it means to be free. A slave can only focus on the present, not on his past, and certainly not on his future. He is not in control of his life, his story. There is no meaningful narrative of where he came from and where he is going. A free person, however, can make choices about his future, can look into his past to learn its lessons, and can shape a story with an arc: a beginning, a middle, and hoped-for ending. How we tell this story about ourselves is crucial. We can construct many possible narratives about our past, and thus about our present and our future. This story we tell will shape the choices that we make and the life that we live. To be free is to choose how we tell our story.
It is for this reason that the haggadah’s account of the Exodus is not the chapters in Exodus that tell the facts of what happened. Rather, it is the verses in Devarim, Arami oved avi, the recitation of the person who brings his first fruit, that form the basis of the Haggadah narrative. Why is that? It is because this recitation is not the story itself. It is the retelling of the story that is made by this person who has just toiled the year in his farm and is now bringing the fruits of that labor in thanks to God. This is how he looks back at the past national history, at God’s hand in history, and how he situates himself within that story. This is the model for the seder night. To retell, or more accurately, to re-retell, the story. To decide what points to highlight, what points to skip over, what lessons to learn, how to shape and understand what happened, how to understand our past, and how to understand ourselves. The task for the seder night is nothing less than to take responsibility for the text. To choose how we will tell the story.
Thus, the form used for the telling of the story is not just the recitation of the verses. It is doresh, to expound on those verses. And to do so in a very particular way. To use the form of rabbinic exegesis. To anchor ourselves in the text, and then to begin to interpret, explain, and apply. In short, it is the very mode of Torah she’b’al peh. And hence, I believe, the curious inclusion of the debates over how many miracles actually occurred. Rabbi Eliezer says 40, Rabbi Akiva says 50. What’s the point? The point is – to model the multiple voices that are part of Torah she’b’al peh. To recognize that there is not just one narrative, there are many. Everyone can be rooted in the same text, and you each person will tell the story that is unique to him or her. And all of these voices are part of the haggadah.
To me, the challenge that we face today is not what story we are telling, but whether we are telling any story at all. I think that most of us who live a life of observance are excellent at doing what halakha demands of us, but how often do we ask – What have I learned from the past? Where am I going? What is the purpose of all of this? What do I – as a Jew, as one who cares about the Jewish community, who wants to serve God – what do I do with my life?
Most of us are living under the rule of Torah she’bikhtav. We do what we are told. We are good servants, good slaves. We are now no longer slaves to Pharaoh. We are avdei Hashem, servants and slaves to God. But are we also free? The path to be both servants of God and yet also free is through Torah she’b’al peh. Ayn li’kha ben chorin ela mi she’asak ba’Torah. No one is free save the person who toils in Torah. It is through Torah she’b’al peh, bringing the fullness of ourselves in encounter with the text, with the tradition, that we will tell the story of who we are and of where we are going. We will have taken responsibility for the text. Vi’kol ha’marbeh li’saper harei zeh mi’shubach.