It’s all in the narrative
A year has passed since the world grappled with the extent of the Covid-19 disaster. The threat felt biblical to everyone, but perhaps especially to the nearly three-quarters of American Jews who attend Passover seders each year. “This year it seems like we have an 11th plague encircling us,” Rabbi Elana Friedman, the chaplain of Jewish life at Duke University, told Daniel Burke, CNN’s religious editor. Its April 9, 2020 headline read: “At this Passover, the Seders are virtual. The plague is real. “
The plague was and is indeed very real. But a lot of seders weren’t virtual. For example, the Chabad movement sent a quarter of a million “seder-to-go” kits to Jews across the country. Spokesman Motti Seligson stated, “A seder is not a screen-based experience. It’s interactive. You go through the steps of the Seder and smell and touch and feel. You talk to the people at the table. It’s something we’ve been doing for thousands of years. And we will do that this year too. “You smell and touch and feel; They talk to each other, sing (also out of tune) and remember. It’s all, as they say, in the narrative.
Exactly a year later a book was published that explains all of this clearly and eloquently. Despite its ambitious title The storytelling: How the essential book of Judaism reveals the meaning of life is anything but ostentatious. But as appropriate for the context, it is different from any other book about Passover, Judaism, and yes, the meaning of life.
So its author is also unique. Mark Gerson is the co-founder and chairman of United Hatzalah, a network of medical volunteers in Israel. Co-founder of the African Mission Healthcare Foundation, which aims to improve medical care in Africa and supports the work of Christian medical missionaries who serve there; Co-founder of peer-to-peer business learning company Gerson Lehrman Group; Author of The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars and in the Classroom: Broadcasts from an Inner City School That Works; and host of The Rabbi’s Husband with Mark Gerson, a popular webcast interviewing a thinker with a religious, political, or theological perspective on a passage from the Torah. In his spare time he hosts a weekly Bible study at Eagles’ Wings, an international Christian organization.
But this latest book is clearly close to his heart. Starting with the Haggadah as a single focus, each argument effortlessly appeals to history, psychology, and theology while the reader remains intrigued. The result is a really nice book. Without a drop of Schmaltz, deep without condescension, and casually funny – just enough to feel authentic – it resists the temptation to chat and, by drawing attention to itself, to distract from its important topic. It’s not surprising that The Telling is number one on Amazon’s Torah bestseller list.
The shared experience from which The Telling emerged shows what makes the Passover Seder so special: reading the ancient text, the conversations, the experience of friends and the shared passion for tradition.
It all began, the author tells us, when a friend invited him to explore the Haggadah over cigars together. He agreed and soon he was hooked. He fell in love with the text. What a window into the importance of Judaism! In doing so, Gerson discovered his own ability to convey what he was learning and feeling to others – Jews of all religious backgrounds as well as non-Jews. With the immense support of his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson, he organized weekly Torah sessions that brought together some of the country’s most thoughtful Jewish scholars, businessmen, and political figures. These include the social entrepreneur Ken Mehlman, Ambassador Michael Oren, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Rabbi David Wolpe, and others no less respected. But like so many of us who deal with words, Gerson admits that “this book was in the making for most of my forty-seven years when my parents instilled the love of Pesach” – a love he now passes on to his four children.
The shared experience from which The Telling emerged shows what makes the Passover Seder so special: reading the ancient text, the conversations, the experience of friends and the shared passion for tradition. Why else would leftovers be banned that night (no leftovers in a Jewish house ?!) and with such a finality: “If a household is too small for a whole lamb, they have to share one with their nearest neighbor after this has been taken into account the number of people there. “Implicitly” embedded in this seemingly obscure guideline is the first lesson in freedom God gives to the Jews. The basic act of a free person, as the Torah shows at Exodus 12: 4, is sharing. “By becoming we become a community – at first small and intimate, like a Torah study group, then larger.
The community does not have to be homogeneous. On the contrary, the “neighbors” who were invited to the seder, ostensibly to prevent leftovers, may or may not be poor or hungry. In any case, they would not be invited out of charity. Gerson points out that, in fact, “there is no Hebrew word for charity or a Jewish concept of it. Instead, we have Zedaka, which means “justice” or “justice”. It is morally compulsory ”but not enforced and is intended to benefit the entire community, both donors and recipients.
Christian author Linda Cox, who notes that the English transliteration of the Hebrew word for giving – Natan – reads the same thing in both directions, calls it “God’s palindrome” to confirm, as it were, the message that the giver and the recipient are reciprocal. Of course, we all have personal hierarchies, a fact recognized by Moses, who stated in Deuteronomy 15:11 that the primary duty is to the family. Then comes the city and the country. But it doesn’t stop there. Because in Judaism, particularism and universalism are by no means contradicting one another. Indeed, each presupposes the other. If we do not love those who are closest to us, we cannot love those who are distant. And since giving is its own reward, it is only limited by personal generosity and resources.
This explains why those invited to the Seder need not be Jews at all; Didn’t Moses ask his beloved father-in-law, Yitro, to stay with him because “you were our eyes”? One reason for extending hospitality to Gentiles, explains Gerson, is that such “guests, especially when encouraged, will inevitably attend with a spirit of novelty that will enliven and enrich the Seder experience.” Avoiding different perspectives invite the Jews to question and challenge. And “in the Torah it is perfectly clear that everyone is made in the image of God. . . . By forming strong and distinctive groups (faith, nation, many others), people can cultivate the values and qualities that can simultaneously make us dedicated and effective universalists, ”Gerson writes.
But what about Jewish selection? Nobody understood this better than Tevye, the milkman who famously asked God, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But can’t you pick someone else every now and then? “Talk about a mixed blessing. When God says he regards the Jews as his firstborn people, Gerson explains, it means that he has referred to the Jews as “the bearers of God, the people who convey the message of ethical monotheism to the nations of the world.” It is not that he loves the Jews more than his other children, any more than one parent prefers the eldest; Rather, he expects them to take on a special responsibility. In the words of the prophet Amos: “You picked only me from all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit all your iniquities on you.” This is how American Puritans, especially the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, understood the responsibility to be called light for the nations, as a “city on a hill”.
Gerson’s humanistic vision encompasses not only Jews of various theological beliefs, but all descendants of Adam, for we are all equal – and gloriously different – made in God’s image. As his ecumenical work across continents and faiths shows, but is clearly rooted in his own tradition, Gerson is both thoroughly Jewish and quintessentially American. He ends with this remark: “Pesach, like everything else that is meaningfully Jewish, is never finished.” Like everything American. Indeed, like everything human. L’chaim.