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Seeing the Self in the Communal and the Communal in the Self

Rabbi Yael Splansky

Studies have shown that the Pesach Seder is the most widely observed ritual of the Jewish People. More than lighting Shabbat candles, more than fasting on Yom Kippur, our people gather around seder tables to tell and retell the Exodus narrative. Why?

Beyond the power of family and memory, there is another very basic and very profound reason people make such an effort to find a seat at the seder table – even when they are travelling or off at university. It has to do with the power of storytelling. It has to do with how we long to write ourselves into the Jewish narrative, and how we long for the Jewish narrative and its wisdom to inform and shape our lives, in turn. This is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew.

We see this in the Torah itself. The broad themes and even some of the fine details of the Exodus narrative, are first told in the life story of Abraham. A Rabbinic commentary (Genesis Rabbah 40:6) outlines the parallels between the individual life of our Patriarch and the collective experience of his descendants centuries later. Just as Abram suffered at the hand of an Egyptian Pharaoh, so to the Israelites.

A few examples:

  • Journey in Search of a Better Life

About Abram it is written: “There was a famine in the land and Abram went down to live there a while because the famine was severe.” (Genesis 12:10) About the Israelites it is written: “For two years now there has been famine in the land.” (Genesis 45:6) “Our ancestors went down into Egypt. (Numbers 20:15) [And said] “We have come to live here awhile because the family is severe.” (Genesis 47:4)

  • Suffering

Abram said to his wife Sarai: “They will kill me, but will let you live.” (Genesis 12:12) About the Israelite babies, Pharaoh decreed: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” (Exodus 1:22)

In Abram’s day: “The Eternal God plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues.” (Genesis 12:17) Ten drops of wine stand for the ten plagues which came upon the Egyptians in Moses’ day.

III. Redemption

Abram and Sarai make a personal exodus from Egypt, as it is written: “Pharoah gave order about Abram to his men, and they sent him on this way.” (Genesis 12:20) And when the Pharaoh of the Pesach story had had enough: “the Egyptians urged the people that they might send them out of the land in haste.” (Exodus 12:33)

About Abram it is written: “Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.” (Genesis 13:2) About the Israelite slaves it is written: “God brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold.” (Psalms 105:37)

This is more than history repeating itself. This is common cause and shared destiny. That’s what people want to be a part of. By taking her place at the seder table, even the skeptic says, “Count me in!” By joining in the debate that springs from the Haggadah, even the estranged Jew validates that Judaism is ever-relevant.

As we prepare old family recipes, set a table with inherited heirlooms, and teach our children or grandchildren the ancient words of Mah Nishtana, we write ourselves into the history of our people and simultaneously write the next chapter of our people, for our people. This book is sometimes a mystery novel, sometimes a suspense story. Some days a self-help book and a travel guide. But according to Song of Songs which we chant at Pesach, this book we write is also a romance between God and the Jewish People, a love story about a people that refuses to let go of one another.

Chag Sameach!

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