Passover: Could the Haggadah reveal the meaning of life?

New Passover book showcases ‘profound and actionable’ lessons from the Seder

A family seen during the "passover seder" on the first night of the 8-day long Jewish holiday of Passover, in Tzur Hadassah, April 8, 2020. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
A family seen during the "passover seder" on the first night of the 8-day long Jewish holiday of Passover, in Tzur Hadassah, April 8, 2020.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
Mark Gerson wants you to bring a romance novel to your Passover Seder.
He recently published The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life – a Haggadah companion.
As its title conveys, Gerson said that his book is not just a holiday manual. It is meant to capture the love he developed for the Haggadah over the past 20 years, and to show the reader the wisdom, insights and highly practical guidance in every one of its passages.
MARK GERSON: Haggadah contains the greatest hits of Jewish thought. (courtesy)MARK GERSON: Haggadah contains the greatest hits of Jewish thought. (courtesy)
“Passover is the authentic Jewish New Year,” Gerson told The Jerusalem Post, “and the Haggadah is not just a dinner program. It contains the greatest hits of Jewish thought.”
The author’s name might be familiar to readers, who know him as the co-founder and chairman of United Hatzalah of Israel. He is also a serial investor and passionate bridge builder. Gerson holds weekly Torah study sessions online with a group of pastors and is the leading funder of African Mission Healthcare.
His podcast, “The Rabbi’s Husband” – he is married to a Reform rabbi – is also gaining a lot of attention.
But on Passover, he told the Post he wants people’s focus to be on the Haggadah, which in English translates to the name of his book. He said that the Haggadah provides “profound and entirely actionable and practical” guidelines for life, which he tries to elucidate.
The book is divided into three sections: background on the holiday and the Haggadah, preparing for the Seder and finally the essence and lessons of the book.
In the book’s introduction, Gerson explains how The Telling came about. In around the year 2000, he began developing an obsession with running. He starts each day jogging at least 7 km.
“I began to watch and listen to Haggadah and Torah commentaries every day on the treadmill – a process that takes a little longer each year,” Gerson wrote in his introduction.
“The more I learned, the more I realized how much more there was to learn and how much I wanted to study," he wrote. "I learned that the wisdom of the Haggadah is not only vast but literally infinite. I experienced how it teaches us to think of life’s biggest questions, guide us in the most frequent and most practical situations, and so much in between.”
The theme of love – love of God and His wisdom, love of life and love of each other – is stitched throughout its pages. Sometimes it is subtle, other times more blatant.
In the chapter “Singing the table of contents: Why highly religious married women are so sexually satisfied,” he brings research to show the benefits of sex. He explains that studies show that married people have more sex than single people, despite the sexual revolution, and therefore “better health outcomes than people who are ‘free’ to sleep with whomever they want.
“What happens when an additional layer of order is added – that of religiosity?” Gerson asks, to which he offers a 2019 study reported in The New York Times: “The most sexually satisfied type of person in the 11 countries surveyed is the highly religious married woman. This is genuine free love, as organized at the Seder and embedded in the Passover celebration.”
Gerson also focuses a lot on recognizing blessings and miracles and expressing gratitude, as described in the Haggadah.
“The composer of ‘Dayenu’ could have just given God one big thanks for all he did during the Exodus,” Gerson writes. “Instead, he expresses gratitude in 15 distinctive ways.”
Why? “The answer is provided in most of the great love songs.... All genuine love involves abundant gratitude – to the beloved, to God, to others involved in the relationship.”
And he tries to leave readers with a call to action.
“With 70 elders, your forefathers descended to Egypt,” Gerson quotes a passage in the Haggadah. But then he explains that there is a problem: According to Genesis 42:26 there were only 69 people who descended.
“Either there was a mathematical error that has not been corrected for 2,000 years, or there is a lesson here,” Gerson told the Post.
His book provides an explanation: “Who is No. 70? Each participant at the Seder.”
He writes, “The Haggadah instructs that we are still in the process of emerging from slavery and idolatry; and participating in this great Jewish New Year experience of contemplation and commitment, refreshment and renewal, is one of the key moments in that process....
“The perpetuation of the story and the continuation of the Jewish people depend on each of us,” he continues. “We are neither historians nor observers, we are neither commentators nor celebrants. We are participants.” 