The Telling Alone is Not Enough (Pesach)

The author asks, how is this act of historical imagination supposed to work? One way is through telling and retelling of our own stories. Tradition expands to include more and more of our stories. Coming out of Egypt is about telling the stories, and it is also about us, now—how we tell them, and how we live them.

April 2, 2007

By Rabbi Laurence Edwards

Holiday: Pesach

The Telling Alone is Not Enough

by Rabbi Laurence Edwards on Monday April 02, 2007 15 Nisan 5767

Exodus 12:21-12:51 & Numbers 28:16-28:25, Passover

Single events are never the whole story, but some events take on significance as symbols of larger processes. Martin Duberman writes in his history of Stonewall, “But if the Stonewall riots did not begin the gay revolution. . .it remains true that those riots became a symbolic event of international importance” (Stonewall, p. 224).

On Pesach, we are obligated to think of ourselves as having personally come out of Egypt. How But how is this act of historical imagination supposed to work? Through this process we each add to the ancient tale our own experience of coming through the “narrow place”: coming through, coming out, coming to terms, coming to peace, coming to a place or a moment of insight. Our own stories resonate, as if in an echo chamber, with the story of our liberation from slavery under the Pharaoh.

Pesach is the holiday that comes closest to the core of our identity as a people. It celebrates the moment when exhausted slaves chose, or were thrust into, a different future. Recent scholarship has cast some doubt on the historical veracity of the events narrated in the Book of Exodus and elaborated in the Haggadah. To me that only makes it more interesting—if we were not actually slaves to in Egypt, then why would we say we were? If Israel somehow emerged from the indigenous or nomadic tribes living in Canaan, as some have suggested, why would we make up a story about being from somewhere else, having escaped from slavery and being lost in the wilderness?

Whatever the historical truth of our origins as a people, the psycho-spiritual fact that constitutes the inner truth of our identity is the story as we have told it for generations: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God took us out with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, and with great wonders. And the moral we are meant to learn is made quite explicit in the Torah: Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You know what it is to be a stranger. Therefore you must not oppress the stranger—indeed, you must love the stranger as yourself. This is the central and most important teaching in the Torah. And it is precisely connected to Pesach.

Over time, the story of each generation’s experiences gets added to the others. The layers of the Haggadah suggest how this happens. A group of rabbis stays up all night discussing Yetziat Mtizrayim, the going out from Egypt. Were they, as some commentators suggest, debating whether to revolt against Rome in their own day? Their moment is added to the many

moments that constitute the seder. “Whoever expands the telling is praiseworthy,” as the Haggadah itself tells us. It is precisely in keeping with this injunction to add an event like Stonewall, and to find a way to sing it in harmony with the ancient tale.

The problem with Pesach is—too much work! Some of us get so caught up in the preparations that we are left with neither the time nor the energy to re-absorb the deep teaching that revolves around justice, liberation, and being prepared to venture out into the wilderness, to a place of greater promise. There is no time to take it all in, despite all the many seder supplements published by just about every Jewish organization imaginable to remind us of famine, genocide, war, hurricanes, disease, and every other variation on disaster and brokenness that are the constant reminders of how desperate the world is for redemption.

It is this brokenness that we are obligated to help repair. This effort at repair is what we have come to call “Tikkun Olam.” Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” is a common phrase these days in Jewish conversation. Not only do we use it a lot, but we assume that other people know what we mean by it.

The Talmud uses the phrase, “mipnei tikkun ha-olam,” by which it usually refers to adjustments made in civil procedures in order to make Torah more applicable to real life circumstances.

Scholars of Jewish mysticism have pointed out that the phrase we have adopted increasingly since the 70s comes from Kabbalah, and originally referred to the repair, the re-balancing, that must be brought about in the Sefirot (the divine “emanations”). With Isaac Luria, the 16th– century Jewish mystic, it took on the added dimension of human actions, the doing of mitzvot, having a direct effect on both the upper and the lower worlds, thus linking the mystical with the ethical.

One might have thought that this now familiar phrase would have originated with the biblical prophets, in their impassioned demand of justice for the poor and disenfranchised, but they don’t use it. In the Bible the root “t-k-n” shows up only once in Jeremiah (where it seems to have an opposite meaning), and three times in Ecclesiastes where it does mean repairing, or “straightening” (!) what is crooked.

Over many generations, the resonance of tikkun has expanded and shifted, from its relatively simple meaning in Ecclesiastes, to its legal and procedural meaning in the Talmud, then to its cosmic echoes in the kabbalistic teachings of Isaac Luria, and most recently to our common use of it to describe our often scattered and inconsistent efforts at bending society toward a broader sense of justice. The Judaic studies scholar Lawrence Fine therefore finds fascinating the way in which this concept of tikkun could be “lifted out of its original context and transformed into a ‘normative’ Jewish value. A contemporary idea is thus legitimated and rendered all the more significant by clothing it in the garb of tradition, a process as old as ‘tradition’ itself.”

It is a beautiful example of how our tradition flexes itself, responds to new understandings, and discovers the ways in which the new informs, and is informed, by the old. In recent weeks, we might also count the decisions within the Conservative community to ordain gays and lesbians, and for rabbinic officiation at same-sex commitment ceremonies, as a further development of the original Exodus—thrust toward liberation. From Egypt to Stonewall and beyond, tradition expands to include more and more of our stories. And we understand that it is more than stories; it is also about us, now—how we tell them, and how we live them.

“This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.” In every generation, we find ourselves in narrow places—political oppression, environmental crisis, personal struggles to live up to our own best selves. The seder ritual is a brilliant orchestration of an extended conversation around the central themes of memory and justice and liberation. To which, let us add, whoever expands the doing of the work of tikkun—on myself and on society—is even more praiseworthy. As another rabbinic statement puts it, Lo ha midrash ha-ikkar, ela ha-ma’aseh: the telling alone is not enough; it must lead us to act in the world.