“Historical narrative matters” declared New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (Jan. 21, 2008). He was talking about the economy, but for us, having just celebrated Pesach seders, his words should resonate even more.
We pride ourselves on being an historical people. Our foundation narrative, what Robert D. Kaplan in Balkan Ghosts called our “crowd story,” is the Exodus from Egypt. During the seder, we repeatedly affirm that indeed in every generation, the retelling of this story validates our historical beginnings as a nation and our journey towards Sinai, where we complete our covenant as a special people bound by obedience to God and the Torah.
Many attacks have been mounted on the historical truth of events as described in the Bible. Archeologists such as Itzchak Beit Arieh and William Dever claim that since no stones and bones have been found in the Sinai that would confirm the outline of the Exodus story, the story was indeed made up and should be viewed with extreme skepticism – if not outright dismissal. No Egyptian records of such an event and no tracks in the Sinai means no Exodus.
Scholars of the various schools of biblical criticism have linked many of the features of the Exodus story to motifs in Egyptian and Greek mythologies. In fact, one wonders how the story has survived its critics and analyzers, given the microscopic examinations to which it has been subjected.
Yet the Passover seder endures as the single most observed Jewish ceremony, whether you count yourself as traditional or secular, whether or not you observe Judaism’s other traditions. It has been the most illustrated, with thousand of versions of the Haggadah, and more added each year. Medieval Haggadot are the most luxuriously hand-illustrated of the story. Modern artists such as Marc Chagall have produced exquisite artistic editions. We can expect that, for years to come, the Haggadah will be the focus of endless discussion and adventurous art.
What is it in this timeless story that appeals? What is it that draws all Jews together on these special nights, wherever they live? Why should our historical narrative matter?
For those of us who live in the Diaspora (and will, in all likelihood, continue to live here), it connects us continuously to a past fraught with drama. It tells us that, even as we sit in comfort and ease, we still live with a past that was filled with danger and incipient destruction. We can scarcely read the story of the Exodus without realizing the tremendous act of faith it depicts, as thousands of slaves pick up and march out of the (then-) greatest civilization of the ancient world.
Then, faced with an army behind them and the sea in front, things just go from bad to worse!
The most incredible stories to emerge from the “Kingdom of Night,” as Elie Wiesel called Auschwitz, were attempts of Jews in concentration camps to recite what they could recall from memory of the seder. Knowing that death was before them and behind them every minute, they still strove to recite our story of redemption under the shadow of the sword. Even there, forgotten by the world and acknowledged only by their enemies who could kill them in an instant, they told the story of liberation.
At the end of my seders, we not only proclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem,” but we sing, “Ba shanah haba’ah, neshev al hamirpeset” – “Next year we’ll sit on our balconies [and enjoy peace].” Together, our family and guests are affirming the continued hope that just around the corner is the final Redemption, the Messianic age that will see all humankind redeemed, an end to war and misery, a time of peace and security for all.
Saadia Gaon admonished his congregation with reasons to accept the truth of the final Redemption, writing, “What has happened to us in the past can be used as a proof and an example that God will assuredly do for us in the future many times above what He has promised us.”
So when we celebrate the Passover season, we are actually declaring that we believe in a time when all people everywhere will be liberated from their own slaveries. What is past is indeed prologue.