The Tales We Tell

The seder as a key to Jewish continuity

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One is particularly obligated to tell the story of the exodus only after the children turn to their parents and ask "what this is?" (referring to this ritual reenactment). The story of the exodus from Egypt--as constructed in the above biblical text--appears, in this sense, to be conveyed in the context of a dialogue between generations that is aroused by the children's questioning. 

Experiencing the Exodus

Clearly, the point of the telling of the story of the exodus is to bring within the scope of the consciousness of a later generation all that had happened previously, at the time of the exodus itself. This, apparently, is what the Rabbis meant when they commanded, in regard to the Passover seder: "In every generation one is obligated to see himself as though he [too] came out from Egypt" (Mishnah Pesahim 10, 5).

The point is not that the Jews of later generations directly experience what their forefathers had already experienced at the time of the exodus. This would be impossible. But rather, the story of the exodus, as told by the previous generation, must become so much a part of the later generation's consciousness that the later generation could not possibly conceive of itself, as it does, without recourse to the realization that its present existence and character is in some way the product of the fateful events that happened previously, which are subsequently told and retold throughout the generations.

This, of course, means that the command to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt is not one that can be fulfilled in a technical fashion. It instead requires great literary, cultural, and educational ability. The story must be told in a way that makes the children's generation receptive to its hearing, and for this reason the story can only be told in response to a question that proceeds from the mouths of the children themselves. But at the same time, the parents' generation is always responsible for arousing such a questioning, an interest or curiosity in their children concerning the family's past.

Jewish Continuity

This point makes for somewhat of an interesting challenge concerning the continuity of Jewish existence; a challenge that touches directly upon the continuing popularity of the Passover seder. The continuity of Jewish existence is dependant upon the success of Jewish parents in every generation to convey the story of its past to its children. Should it ever happen that the parents no longer have a story to tell; or if the children are no longer interested in hearing the story of their past, the existence of the Jewish people will then come to an end. This, I believe, is the root of assimilation.

We find at times that for one reason or another many parents no longer have a story of the Jewish past to tell. Sometimes it is the children who are so enthralled with matters having nothing to with Judaism that they are disinterested in hearing the story. From a pedagogical viewpoint this means that those parents who have little or no knowledge of the Jewish past must acquire such knowledge and develop through it an emotional affinity for that past. They must then convey that affinity to their children at an age before the child becomes pre-occupied with matters that will later make the child's involvement in the Jewish past superfluous.

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Dr. Joseph Turner

Dr. Joseph (Yossi) Turner is a lecturer in Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.