A couple of years ago I was out for a walk in the winter and I called my grandmother. It was one of those rare DC winter days when, as a Chicagoan, I can feel comfortable complaining about the cold - it was probably about 20 degrees. And while I’m talking to her I exclaimed a couple of times “Wow I am SO cold!!!”
And after one of the times I said it she responded “I remember being so cold,” and then shared a story about how cold she had been while living in the ghetto in Shanghai during WWII. It was so severe that she still has problems with her feet to this day.
I’ve been thinking about this since it happened. I wasn’t sure how to feel. I could react by feeling like a total jerk for complaining about the cold while I’m outside walking in my parka and boots. Or I could say ok, well this is my version of cold and that is her version of cold. But regardless, she took me out of the banality of my everyday existence and inserted her trauma into my mundane narrative.
This is one of the goals of the seder - we revisit the trauma of earlier generations. We are commanded to see ourselves as though WE left Egypt, and part of that includes slavery. We have to make ourselves feel like we were really there and it happened to us.
However, it is odd that the mishna prescribes that the core of the haggadah is the text of arami oved avi from Deuteronomy. This text describes the bikkurim festival in the land of Israel, when each farmer has to bring the first of his harvest to the beit hamikdash and say my father was a wandering Aramean, he went down to Egypt where we were slaves, God redeemed us, and now we’re free to live in the land of Israel. This selection is quite strange - after all, we have chapters about the exodus in the book of Exodus! Why wouldn’t we just use some of that to tell the story? Why do we have to go all the way to Deuteronomy? And furthermore, we are telling the story through the lens of a farmer in Israel who didn’t actually experience the exodus! You can imagine how one of the slaves who left Egypt would feel reading our haggadah. We are supposed to see ourselves as though we left Egypt, but we’re telling the story through the eyes of a farmer who got to see the fulfillment of the exodus, and never even had to experience it himself! The slave would say to him - what do you know about my story?? What do you know about what it was really like?? You have it so easy!
Many have asked the question of why this is used. Some say that the answer is as simple as - arami oved avi is a concise summary of the story of the Exodus, and so we use that as a jumping off point so we can have our own conversations. For if we were to spend the seder reading all of the exodus from Shemot we wouldn’t have time to add thoughts of our own.
There is another explanation that addresses the role of Christianity and the haggadah. The bones of the haggadah were being designed at the same time that Christianity was emerging. Early Christians saw Exodus 12 as a story about salvation, and Jesus being the paschal lamb. Rather than try to compete with this narrative or blur the lines between them, the Jews chose to use Deuteronomy instead to eliminate any possible confusion.*
Today I want to think about this question in light of the story with my grandmother. As we said, when we read the haggadah at the seder we aren’t telling the story of the exodus - we’re telling the retelling of the exodus, and this retelling is from someone who wasn’t even there. I believe this is very intentional. If the haggadah was just the story from Shemot, then every time we read it we would feel the way I did while speaking to my grandmother - wow, I can never complain. Your story will never be my story. I can never relate to what you went through, so my every day existence feels trivial in comparison. It would be paralyzing to us. By having us tell the story through the text of someone else retelling it, the haggadah teaches us that you can tell a story of trauma even if you didn’t experience it personally. That it’s OK if you didn’t suffer as much as someone else did. It doesn’t belittle your ability to participate in the story. As long as you conduct yourself with the proper humility, and you are able to really step outside yourself and into someone else’s shoes, it is your story too.
This message also goes beyond the haggadah. As we heard yesterday, there is so much suffering in the world. Children in Mali are dying by the thousands of diseases that we have long since cured. This can make us feel we are useless, that we have it so easy that it’s a joke to think we ever struggle with anything. But that kind of guilt isn’t warranted, nor is it productive. We all have a story to tell and our perspectives are all valuable. And sometimes, not having the firsthand experience is what can make you more able to help. We should always strive to understand others’ stories, and not feel guilty because we didn’t have to suffer like they did too.
*See Israel Jacob Yuval’s Two Nations in Your Womb pp. 79
Maharat Ruth Friedman is a member of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic (legal) authorities. She and her husband Yoni moved to DC in 2013 to begin her position as Maharat at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue, where Maharat Friedman’s responsibilities include overseeing the conversion program, supervising the operation of the community mikvah, directing adult education, providing pastoral counseling, teaching in the community, and more. She is a proud member of both the Chicago and Washington Boards of Rabbis, and sits on the Executive Committee of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, of which she is also a member. Maharat Ruth is also a founding member of the Beltway VAAD. She and Yoni are the proud parents of their sons Ezra and Joebear, and their rambunctious dog, Cocoa.
This piece was originally published by Yeshivat Maharat. www.yeshivatmaharat.org
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