The Tales We Tell

The seder as a key to Jewish continuity

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This principle, as we all know, is embedded that part of the seder that prescribes the ways in which the story is to be told to the four children. The response suggested to the child who "does not [yet] know how to ask" is particularly significant here.       

On this background we may understand the educational significance of the Bible's command, noted in the above text, that one "shall have [them] as a sign upon your hands and a remembrance between your eyes." In rabbinical tradition this verse is seen as a reference to the tefillin, or phylacteries, worn at the time of the morning prayer service. But what are they a "sign" and "remembrance" of?

According to the above text, they are a sign and a remembrance of the exodus. The significance of the act of putting the tefillin on one's body is not to be found in the act itself, but rather in the successful telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, a telling that if it indeed is successful results in familiarity with the traditions of the past.

And, indeed, without such a successful telling of the story of the peoples' past no Jew would ever think of performing such a ritual act with his daily prayers. For without such a successful telling of the story, there is really nothing at all to bind the present generation that was not a witness to past events, with the traditions of its parents.

A quick look at our own times exposes a most problematic situation that the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt is meant to resolve. The vast majority of laws and customs have been forgotten by most Jews alive today. And yet, the Passover seder continues to be a popular event in the contemporary Jewish world. What may we learn from this?

We may learn that over time the successful telling of the story has been considerably weakened. Ant yet, at the same time, despite this cumulative weakening, enough of the initial story is still present within community so as to know that all is not lost, and that with proper commitment and steadfastness the process may one day be reversed.

Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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Dr. Joseph Turner

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