August 17, 2019

Truth in Storytelling

It’s too bad, but I didn’t know from Pesach until rabbinic school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Growing up as the child of a Holocaust survivor, my family chose to diminish its Jewish expression and focus on the “Red, White and Blue” of Midwestern American life instead. So, it was with great interest that I sat in Rabbi Dr. David Aaron’s Bible class on the day we were to encounter “Pesach in Torah.” His classes are not for the faint-hearted, or the frum — his biblical scholarship is laser-sharp, peering into Torah and unearthing fascinating realities about our ancestors, their concerns, and how they concretized them into our sacred text.

Dr. Aaron started the lecture with a caveat — unusual for him — that this was to be (my words) a “fasten your seat belt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride” kind of class. We opened up to Exodus 12 and 13 and recapped the commandments and narrative details. As he wrote them on the board, one issue was of singular importance to him: “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning” (Exodus 12:22).

As we started to see strange traces of two very different issues arising — a seven-day agricultural Chag HaMatzot, and a protection ritual involving the slaughter of an animal and the smearing of blood on doorposts and lintel — over and over, Dr. Aaron kept going back and saying, in ever-stronger tones, “Remember: Do not go outside until morning!”

“So what?” I thought. As Pesach-naive as I was at the time, even I knew that.

Yet, as we delved further and further, Dr. Aaron’s point — at least on the surface — became clear: Why would we be told to stay inside at all costs (lest “The Slaughterer” destroy us!); to stay inside so God would protect us, passing over our homes; and then, in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, Moses and Aaron are in Pharaoh’s court getting the OK to exit, and as “the Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country” (Exodus 12:33)? The last thing our ancestors would want to do is risk the wrath of that primordial Darth Vader, HaMashchit. But, according to the story, 600,000 and the mixed multitude nonetheless ignored Moses’ imperative, went outside in the middle of the night and fled.

Something is clearly astray in this story, and the more willing we were to discard our preconceived “this is how we always told it at seder” notions and peer deeper into Torah, we got to the second of Rabbi Aaron’s points: What is “true” vis-Ã -vis what is “truth.”

To dissect these two biblical chapters is to realize some distant author-redactor(s) willfully knitted together two disparate rituals. By using the pretense of haste and the reality that matzah must bake quickly, Pesach — the ancient Israelite yearly protection rite against some horrific “bogeyman,” became our beloved Passover, that “institution for all time, for you and for your descendants” (Exodus 12:24).

Here we engage the power, as well as the problem, of the question I’m often asked, “But rabbi, did it happen?” My response: “Is a fact more meaningful than a story?” For example, is a table more eloquent than the story of its genesis, from a seed in a forest to the person who harvested (and hopefully did not cut down) the tree, to the artistry of the carpenter who constructed it to the family who took possession of it — and to the myriad life experiences that took place around that carved wood?

Each time I confront my Introduction to Judaism classes with the story of the creation of Passover and of the challenge of deriving meaning from what is “true” vs. “truth,” I become more inspired by that very tale, whose so-called inconsistencies I bring to life. Just like us, our ancient forbearers lived in a messy, unkempt, imperfect world; just like us, they, too, struggled against overwhelming religious forces; just like us, they too were deeply concerned with existential identity and future.

So what did they do? They created a story, imbued with human drama and divine providence, weaving a timeless tapestry that in showing its seams, offers us — or perhaps, implores us — to be the next generation of weavers, creating a haggadah of meaning and truth for our time. It is surely no accident that the same Hebrew root forms both the words emunah (faith) and omanut (art). With a flick of the pen, Mitzrayim becomes m’tzorim: instead of Egypt the place, we can be in “narrow spaces,” “troubled places.” The resultant darkness, challenge and redemption can be drawn out in countless ways for many peoples, over dozens of generations. It is this unique, sacred gift; the tapestry of emunah and omanut we call Torah, that not only has kept us (and all the more so at Pesach), but also has been a bountiful gift to much of the rest of the world.

Dr. Aaron always writes a new haggadah for his seder; the concluding stanzas from his 2002 poem, “Sanctuary,” says it all:

Alas, the Temple is in ruins, here and there;
There is violence in her streets
She burns as in the days of Jeremiah.

The only edifice left standing
Will be the text and its telling;
Our eternal holy sanctuary.

The telling, with which we embrace
One another, past, present and future,
As only true lovers can.

Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein is one of the clergy at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and serves as its director for the Center for Religious Inquiry.