The following is based on a holiday message from my friend and teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman.
There are many families whose Seder night is an intellectual delight. No wonder—after all, many beautiful insights can be gleaned from practically every word of the Passover Hagaddah—our nation’s original Declaration of Independence.
And yet it seems that the Seder night asks us for something else. As the Hagaddah tells us: “Even if all of us were scholars, even if all of us were sages, even if all of us were elders, even if all of us were learned in the Torah, it would still be our duty to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.”
We are supposed to tell the story even to those who already know everything. In other words, this night is not meant to add knowledge. This is not a night meant for profound Torah commentary. This is a night meant to tell the story.
Anyone who has ever read a good story realizes that you do not necessarily get from it information that you did not previously know. A story is not necessarily an opportunity to receive new wisdom; but a really good story makes you feel and experience the narrated events. Sometimes you are able to feel this right in your body—to sweat at moments of fear, to tremble at moments of excitement, and to shed a tear at moments of pain or of deep emotion.
This is exactly what is supposed to happen on Seder night.
We don’t need the Seder to inform us about the Exodus from Egypt–we already know about that from our ritual life throughout the year. The Friday night Kiddush over wine speaks of the Sabbath as “a memorial to the Exodus from Egypt,” and the Sh’ma prayer recalls the Exodus for us every morning and every evening of every day: “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God” (Numbers 15.41).
On Seder night, therefore, there is no need to learn about the Exodus; we must feel as if we ourselves have left Egypt. Not to know the story and not to become wise, but to experience it in our souls. To do this, we must dive into the depths of the story. To tell what our ancestors felt in bondage and what in redemption, to point to the bread of affliction as if this was all the meal we have, and to savor the affikomen as if this was the Passover sacrifice that was eaten to satiety.
Instead of piling on the sermons, we need to refine our senses.
On Seder night, parents and children gather around the Seder table. Ostensibly this night is meant to teach children what they do not know, but children do not necessarily seek knowledge; they are thirsty for a story. They seek to feel, and in order to reach their hearts, the adult, the storyteller, must feel for himself. And no less than the children need an adult to tell the story, the adult needs the child to have someone to whom to tell the story and to truly feel the story.
Note: Readers will be interested to learn that Rabbi Engelman himself is a professional storyteller. In addition to his various teaching and rabbinical duties, Rabbi Engelman is the author of two well-received novels and regularly conducts writing workshops around the country. Happy Passover!
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.