B'chol dor vador, chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke'ilu hu yatzah mi-mitzrayim… "In every generation, each person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally went forth out of Egypt…For God redeemed not only our ancestors, God redeemed us with them."
These words, recited as part of the Passover seder, are at the very heart of what the holiday is about--and of what it means to be a Jew. We are instructed not just to remember, not just to tell, but to actually find ourselves within the Exodus story of slavery and liberation. Why this active re-telling, re-living, each and every year?
The ancient rabbis who created the Passover seder understood that it is narrative that shapes our understanding of who we are, as individuals and as a community. This kind of narrative has been called, by the theologian Michael Goldberg, a "master story." In this understanding, we believe what we believe, we act the way we act, because our beliefs and identity are grounded in a powerful master story. We understand where we have been and where we are going based on that story. And in a religious community, we understand God based on how God is revealed to us in our master story.
What is the "master story" that we American Jews tell about ourselves in the 21st century?
The classic American Jewish narrative is "rags to riches," a journey from poverty and struggle to security and prosperity. We came here as immigrants, as refugees, and by and large we've made it. In America we've not only found safe haven, but flourished. And we live out this story by continuing to be "successful"-achieving economic wealth and professional status, living in neighborhoods where we don't have to see those sides of the American dream that don't quite fit the image of the goldene medina, the golden land.
And the moral of this story? That's less clear. Perhaps that material well-being is the measure of success, and that individual achievement is what gives meaning to our lives, even in the community. The problem with this story is that it fails to answer a key question our "master story" has to answer: Why is being Jewish important? Why should Judaism and the Jewish people exist in this world?
There is another Jewish story that is more compelling, yet equally problematic. This is the story of survival--of tenacious continuity following nearly total destruction--that has echoed throughout Jewish history and resonates most loudly for us in the recent experience of the Holocaust. This is the story that led so many of our teachers and elders to tell us that we should go to Hebrew school, marry a Jew, care about Judaism--so as not to give Hitler a "posthumous victory." The moral of this story is that survival in and of itself is the primary Jewish value. Yet it is a story with no plot, no movement, no direction--our simply being here is good enough. This story, like the first, fails to tell us why we should place any value on Judaism or being Jewish. Most sadly, it is a story in which fear, not hope, remains at the center.
The Passover seder comes each year to remind us of our true "master story", the one that tells us who we are and where we are going. It is the story of the Exodus--of a people born in slavery, freed by their God, and taken on a transformational journey. It is the story of the steps taken towards becoming a community bound by a holy covenant, where social relationships are defined by the Godly principles of tzedek and chesed, justice and love.
This story tells us where we come from: we once were slaves, and we know what it means to experience oppression. This story tells us who our God is--a God of liberation, a God who hears the cry of oppressed people and moves to free them. This story tells us how to behave, as the Torah repeatedly teaches: "You were strangers in the land of Egypt, so do not oppress the stranger." And this story tells us where we are going: towards a better place, a "promised land" where the covenant of justice and love can be fulfilled.
The message of hope at the core of the Passover story--the affirmation of the possibility of redemption in the midst of slavery--is the gift we bring to a world broken by the continual oppressions that human beings inflict upon one another. But to bring that gift, we must enter into this story and make it our own; we must understand the slavery and oppression that still bind us, and experience the possibility of true freedom. From this awareness, we come to the next point in the seder, to singing a "new song" before God. By weaving our own stories of oppression and liberation into this master story, each of us renews the message of hope in our own generation. By realizing our place in the ancient story, we are moved to sing a "new song," a new way of understanding slavery and freedom, and of what it means to exalt the One.
Toba Spitzer is the rabbi of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton,