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The stories we tell; Passover is the ultimate memory holiday

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Instead of watching 'The Prince of Egypt' over and over during Passover, why not send your kids to the Segal Centre Academy for Passover camp?
'The Prince of Egypt'

People see themselves in The Moss Haggadah – literally.

This stunning rendition of the traditional seder text, calligraphed and illuminated by gifted artist David Moss in the 1980s, features a page representing a stylized miniature portrait gallery. In facing pages, three rows of small oval portraits, each an inch or so high, meant to represent Jewish men and women of different eras, stare back at the reader.  Interspersed between the portraits are framed silver ovals, small mirrors that reflect the reader’s own face. The rows of ovals illuminate the text on the page: in each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt.

Referred to as the “Historical Reflections” pages, the facing sheets offer a concrete illustration of the abstract concept of seeing oneself in our people’s past. Looking at the faces that are meant to represent Jewish men and women of earlier eras, we see ourselves among them. And by projecting ourselves into that past, we bring its story into the present. Memory has something to teach us. Its patterns and embedded ideals shape the way we understand our own world.

Although all Jewish festivals entail remembrances, Passover is the ultimate memory holiday. The haggadah, the book that governs seder celebrations, literally means “recounting” or “telling.” Its pages do not merely tell the story of a remembered event. It tells the story of other people who tell the story and enjoin us to tell it, too. It positions us as storytellers, through the act of reading from it at the seder. The resulting multi-layered telling ensures that a foundational event that happened long ago is kept in living memory.

READ: SWEETS FOR PASSOVER 

At the same time, we cannot help but see the past in terms of our own sensibilities. The world we live in not only derives meaning from the past, it also shapes the way we understand the memories transmitted over time.  In fact, as Bible scholars repeatedly insist, we cannot fully know how the ancient world understood the stories in the Torah. Inherited traditions are not a transparent window on the past, nor a time machine that can take us there. But through an accumulation of  stories, traditions, commentaries, art, songs and other vehicles of memory, we sense how different eras understood our foundational texts. And we, in turn, bring our own concerns to the past and have Jewish memory speak not only to us, but about us. We reshape memory with our own perceptions and experiences. The past is always remembered in the terms of the present.

To tell is to extract our own meanings. At the seder, we contemplate enslavements, whether national, historical or personal. And we use a remembered past to fuel our own commitments to Jewish endurance, to Jewish ethics, to a redeemable world.  We root our empathy in memory, allying ourselves with others whom we see as enslaved – whether by poverty, illness or prejudice. We identify with victims of violence, atrocity, genocide and homelessness. We reshape our seder table – some adding a fourth matzah, others an orange, others a cup of Miriam – so that the past that we commemorate fits the present that we inhabit.

There is a natural elasticity to memory.  It can take on the shapes we impose on it, so long as we don’t stretch it beyond what it can contain. Some people see this two-way negotiation between our remembered past and our lived present as a betrayal of our inherited memory. But the truth is that there is no such thing as pure memory. We have no direct portal to the past. We only have the stories we tell and the ways we tell them.