The stories we’re obliged to tell

The next generation of Jewish leaders will join us not if we beat them into intellectual submission, but if we bequeath to them new memories.

American Israel flag kippa 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
American Israel flag kippa 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
We read it so often that we hardly even notice it anymore.
It’s that famous line from the Haggada, which Jews around the world will recite in just a few days: “And even if we were all wise, filled with understanding, all elders and all learned in the Torah, we would still be obligated to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.”
Why, though? If we were all so deeply learned, what possible need would there be to tell a story? The message is clear – there are truths that emerge from stories that cannot be gleaned from “mere” study. There is knowledge to which the heart can lead us that the mind cannot. As much as Jews take the intellect seriously, we understand its limitations. There is a sort of knowing that can come only through telling – or hearing – a story.
It is the difference between great philosophy and profound literature. As critical and even world-changing as some of the great philosophers have been, for many of us, it is the broken heart and the soul laid bare that we encounter in great literature that touches us more deeply.
From there, we glean our most profound insights about what matters, to what we hope to dedicate our lives. The notion that we can create real allegiance only through minds and without touching hearts is foolish. That is why the Bible contains no rigorous philosophy, but many stories. And that is why the more we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Haggada tells us, the more we are to be praised.
A COUPLE of weeks ago, I wrote a column (“Of sermons and strategies,” April 1) about American rabbinical students who feel distanced from Zionism, some of whose critiques of Israel seem to me to have crossed red lines. Since that column appeared, I’ve had numerous meetings with students studying in Israel for the year. Some I met in groups, some alone.
Politically and religiously, they represented a broad spectrum. They were smart, sensitive and genuine. As we spoke, some shared their most basic worry – that Israel would not be decent.
And I shared mine – that Israel would not survive.
Obviously Israel’s decency is critical.
But a country that does not exist cannot be decent. And as we spoke, memories began to emerge. I shared with some of these students my earliest memory about Israel. It was June 1967, and I was almost eight years old. We were in the kitchen, in Baltimore, having dinner. But this dinner was different from all other dinners.
My brothers and I ate, and our parents served us. As on almost every night, our little black-and-white television was tuned to Walter Cronkite. But on this night, my parents didn’t eat – they didn’t even sit at the table. All they did was feed us, watch TV – and pace across the kitchen.
The next evening, when that odd scene unfolded once again, I finally asked them, “Aren’t you going to eat?” “We’re not hungry,” they said. I was dumbfounded. How could you not be hungry at dinner time? And two days in a row? When my own kids ask what it was that led us to move here, I say nothing about lectures I heard or books I was given to read. It was, I explain, the simple fact that with Israel seemingly on the very precipice of destruction, my parents simply couldn’t eat.
Some of the students then shared their own earliest memories of Israel. One recalled the day that all the students in his Orthodox day school were summoned together for an assembly, and how the whole school watched as Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. For another, it was the intifada, and the images (again, on television) of helmeted IDF soldiers with rifles chasing young boys who’d thrown rocks.
My formative memories were of Israel on the verge of extinction, while theirs were of Israel being recognized by its neighbor or of the seeming imbalance of Israeli-Palestinian power. And that makes all the difference.
None of us knows with certainty how widespread the alienation from Israel among these students is, but no one ought to deny that it is there. And it is obviously even more widespread among college students at large. What Pessah is designed to remind us is that a major part of our response has to be memorycreation.
Many American rabbinical students go to Bethlehem each year, on a program designed to expose them to the feelings of the “other” side. But there’s passion to be felt on this side, too. Go to Bethlehem, fine. But why not also visit Ein Prat and witness the meeting of Western civilization and Jewish tradition in a beit midrash populated by post-army secular and religious Israelis together? Speak to people in Bethlehem (though hopefully without being foolish enough to imagine that those are the kinds of people who are our real enemies), but then go to the student-run villages of Ayalim, where a new, socially aware, politically diverse, largely non-religious Zionist activism is taking root precisely among young people their age. Those are the sorts of memories we have to add to the hopper.
What’s shaping these students? It’s fine to assign books on human rights and on the problematics of Israeli democracy.
But I’d have them read Amos Oz’s Tale of Love and Darkness, too, so they can see the non-negotiable love for Zion with which a staunch leftist writes. I’d have them read Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers, and “visit” the offices of Eshkol, Meir, Rabin and Begin – “relive” moments when life here hung by a thread. (Most of the students I asked had not read either one.) True, they won’t have actually lived through it – but the Seder night suggests to us that we can remember even things that we did not experience.
A student dropped me a line after one of these meetings. “It may sound strange,” he said, “but for some of us, the most memorable idea to come out of the meeting is that Israel might actually not survive.” For someone of my generation, what is shocking is that that was surprising.
But it’s not a matter of anyone’s “fault.”
It’s a matter of what we remember, and what we don’t. That’s the business that we’re in this coming Monday night. The Seder is the moment for reminding ourselves – and each other – that the next generation of Jewish leaders will join us not if we beat them into intellectual submission, but if we can bequeath to them new memories – and thus, at the same time, our aspirations, as well as our foreboding awareness of the fragility of freedom.
The writer is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He blogs at