Friday, March 22, 2013

Telling the Story

As we move through these final days leading into Passover, I’ve been thinking for some reason about an aspect of our festival observance that seems to get lost in the shuffle as we all scramble to make ready our homes, get all those meals cooked, find the Haggadahs wherever it is we put them last year, and figure out who is going to sleep where. It’s a busy time. I’ve been staying up past my bedtime for days and days. Joan’s solved her problem by not sleeping at all. It will all get done, of course, as it always does always get done. And it’s more than easy to see why no one has the time for the leisurely, ruminative contemplation of the story behind the festival. Still, isn’t that just a bit odd, considering that the commandment to tell the story in as detailed a manner as the guests at one’s seder, and particularly the children present, are likely to appreciate and to interiorize rests at the generative core of all that cleaning and all that cooking? Given how difficult it actually is to relate the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt to the next generation carefully, effectively, and interestingly, it’s strange to think how little playtime that specific commandment actually gets in terms of how we organize our run-up to the seder evenings.

 Even odder is to consider how it is that the Haggadah—the book which gets its name from the commandment in question (the word haggadah in  Hebrew literally means “telling” or “story” and derives directly from the words v’higgad’ta l’vinkha in Exodus 13:8, “and you shall tell your children”  every year on the eve of Passover how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt)—even stranger is the way that the Haggadah passes over the story itself and never actually does get around to telling the tale from beginning to end as a sequential story that someone hearing it for the first time could understand easily.

For some reason, it took me years to notice this. I’ve always loved the Haggadah, always found in its ancient cadences a kind of liturgical satisfaction that other equally ancient works seem to me to lack, or at least to lack to the degree that the Haggadah possesses it. I suppose we all have our favorite passages. We surely all have our favorite songs and melodies. But it is probably because we are all so familiar with the book—and I know for a fact we at Shelter Rock have many in our midst, and not only myself, who can recite long passages from the book by heart and remarkably accurately—that it takes some serious stepping back even to notice how oddly and little clearly the story is told. Take a look when you get there this year at the seder and tell me if you think that someone who knew nothing of the story going in and only read the Haggadah would leave the table with a clear sense of what specifically happened to the Israelites or how their liberation from bondage in Egypt was actually effected.  The question I want to write about today, then, is not why this is historically so—the history of the Haggadah itself is a bit shrouded in mystery, although it is clearly an ancient book that was already in existence during the early Talmudic period, which is to say by the third century CE—but rather what point the liturgists who created the Haggadah were trying to make by telling the story in the specific way those chose to tell it.

I suppose the simplest answer would be that the whole concept of telling the tale is meant from the get-go to be a heuristic experience, one that was developed specifically to whet the appetite of listeners to learn more. Motivation, then as now, is the key to learning. Any teacher, whether in nursery school or graduate school, will tell you exactly the same thing, that what makes any teacher great is not his or her ability to tell things to students in class but to awaken in them the desire personally to feel interested in the specific material the teacher wishes them to master. According to this line of thinking, then, the obscure way the Haggadah tells the story is not flaw but pedagogy…and that the whole point is not to impart information, or not solely to impart information, but to stimulate the interest of the listeners in the story under discussion, to motivate them to want to learn more.  We could say, then, that the Haggadah avoids a straightforward rendition of its core story specifically and intentionally to draw listeners in, to awaken their nascent curiosity in the tale, to make them want to ask the questions that will lead them ultimately to internalize the lessons the story is being told to teach in the first place.

Or maybe there is another answer. Like many of you I’m sure, I read with interest Bruce Feiler’s article in the “This Life” column that was published a few days ago in the NY Times.  Adapted from his newly published book, The Secrets of Happy Families, the article put forward the thesis that one of the key indicators of a child’s future success in life as an adult is the degree to which that child is possessed of a clear, cogent narrative regarding his or her parents’ and grandparents’ life stories. Basing himself on the work of Emory University psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, Feiler makes a convincing argument that the more children know about their ancestors—going back even to the parents and grandparents of their own grandparents, or even further back than that when possible—the stronger their sense of being possessed of an “intergenerational self” is going to be. And it is precisely that sense of one’s intergenerational identity—the understanding of one’s place in the universe not in terms of the people one actually knows, but in terms of the far larger, broader, rich, and more complex story of the people who constitute one’s extended family back through generations and generations—that is what gives children confidence and provides them with the basis for a lifetime of emotional health and happiness.

For all of us, no matter how much we may know about our families, there is a point at which the parade of ancestors crosses into partial, then total, invisibility as the boundary of knowability is crossed.  Mostly, we can name our four grandparents. Some of us can even name all eight of our great-grandparents. I imagine some fortunate few of us might even know the names of some of their great-grandparents’ parents. But how much further back than that can any of us go? Not too far! And yet…must I not logically be the direct descendent of someone who was alive a thousand years ago in 1013?  It was a long time ago and not a long time ago. Kaifeng, China, was the world’s largest city. Henry II was Holy Roman Emperor. The Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo, still standing, was finally completed that year. Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, one of my own culture heroes whose reduction of the Talmud to its constituent laws I consult all the time, was born that year. The Jews were expelled that year from the caliphate of Cordoba in Spain. And somewhere in the midst of all that must there not have lived the great-grandfather of my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather? Add a few more “great-grandfather’s” to that sentence and the answer has to be yes…but his name, his identity, the story of his life, and the degree to which he resembled me (if he did, but how could he have?)—all that is lost to me, and irretrievably so.

So maybe the whole Haggadah experience is designed to awaken that sense of intergenerational identity in all of us, and particularly in our children. We tell the story clearly and unclearly to mirror the degree to which we can know something, but nowhere near everything, about our families, about our histories…and also to mirror the way in which we can only be truly happy in life if we balance the obligation to invent ourselves with the effort to self-situate in the context of our own families’ histories. We tell the story, therefore, in a way that says to our young people almost clearly how things truly are: you won’t ever know the whole story…but you can listen carefully, learn what you can, paste disparate details together, use what you do know to create something like a flowing narrative. We’ll get you going by starting the story off for you. Our ancestors descended to Egypt and settled there when they were still just a small family group, but they grew there to be a multitudinous and mighty nation.  The Egyptians began to treat them harshly, forgetting they were their own invited guests, and, in the end, they enslaved them, whereupon our people cried out to God, whereupon God heard their voices calling out and took note of their suffering….and just a million generations later you yourself were born.

I don’t know if that’s the “real” reason the Haggadah tells its story the way it does. Maybe it is! Or maybe not…but the concept of the intergenerational self is for some reason very resonant with me.  My own grandparents and great-grandparents, all but one of them immigrants to this country, were eager to forget the past, to speak only English, to focus on their identity as Americans and barely, ideally never, to speak of their former lives or their parents’ or grandparents’ lives in what they derisively referenced as the “old country,” the land of the past as opposed to the land of the future in which they hoped their descendants would evermore thrive. And their plan worked, at least in the sense that I am not at all ambivalent about my place in the universe in just the way that my immigrant forebears must surely have hoped would be the case. Could it be that the kind of intergenerational identity the Haggadah fosters can only be born of confidence in one’s actual place in the current version of the universe? We are, after all, a community of secure citizens well-rooted in this place and proud of who we are and what we have become. And that, in turn, seems to me to be precisely the right platform on which to stand as we call out to those at our seder tables and say that the story in the book, obscurely told though it may be, is not the story of people who lived millennia ago in a far-off land but rather the story of us, of our own people, of our nameless but real ancestors whose lives on earth somehow flow directly into our own. Will our descendants in 3013 think of themselves in just that way? We can only hope!

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