The power of a compelling narrative lies at the heart of Jewish life. We see a stark illustration of this in one particular mitzvah – the requirement of a farmer to bring his first fruits to the Temple and make a declaration in the presence of the kohanim dedicating the fruits to God.
The wording of that declaration is precisely spelled out by the Torah and includes a significant word, higaditi, translated as, “And I have told.” The farmer is telling a story.
What story is this farmer telling? There are the objective facts, the physical events, that led him to this point in time. He plowed and planted, and irrigated and harvested, and reaped produce from his land. But there is also a narrative running parallel to these events.
There is metaphysical shape and meaning to be found nestled in these physical details. Bringing the first fruits to the Temple and dedicating them to God is a gesture of gratitude to the Creator – an acknowledgment of God’s role in bringing all of those processes quite literally to fruition.
This narrative of the farmer extends further – connecting his own individual experience to a national narrative, situating his own farming efforts within the context of the Jewish people and Land of Israel as a whole, and recognizing the power of community. He is formulating a narrative of his life and its meaning and purpose – a narrative of what it means to be a Jew.
Constructing a narrative of who we are is unique to the human being, imbued with a Godly soul, with the capacity and need for creating and grasping meta-meaning.
As part of his declaration, the farmer tells the story of how God gave the Jewish people the land of Israel through a covenant He established with our forefathers. The farmer then traces the story of how the Jewish people landed up in Egypt, how we were afflicted by the Egyptians, how we called out to God, and how He answered our cries and redeemed us with signs and wonders.
And so, from this mitzvah, God teaches us how to narrate the story of our own Jewish identity – a story rooted in the historical facts of the Egyptian slavery, our redemption from that slavery, the divine mission we were given at Mount Sinai, and the gift of the Land of Israel.
This is the very narrative we live at the Passover Seder. These verses, which the farmer recites over his first fruits, are the centerpiece of the Seder. It’s instructive that the name given to the book we read from on Passover night is the Haggadah, which itself means “the telling of the story”– that is the narrative of our people’s history and destiny. The main part of the Seder is called maggid – again from the root of formulating a narrative. There are the historical facts of our slavery in Egypt and our redemption, and all that follows – but what the night of the Seder gives us is an opportunity to bring those events to life through an overarching narrative.
That is the reason why the overriding focus of the Seder is the interaction between parents and children – it is through the Seder that we transmit the divine narrative and meaning of Jewish history and the essence of Jewish identity to the next generation. It is on Seder night that we tell our children the story of who we are and where we come from and why we are here.
This idea – of telling our story – is at the heart of a new limited podcast series my family and I have produced. We recorded this multi-part series together over the last few weeks at our dining room table. We had fun going through the Haggadah, sharing ideas, debating, and delving into the narrative of the origins of our remarkable nation. We want to share our preparations with anyone who is interested in joining and finding a fun and lively way to prepare for this year’s Seder experience, so that by the time Seder night comes, we will all be primed for the experience. Listen in and use the experience to model your own pre-Passover family discussion to prepare for the Seder.
Going on this journey as a family before the Seder has been transformational for us. We have had the luxury of time to really prepare and understand the Haggadah in ways we have never before. There is such a power in taking the time before Passover to feel and discover the Seder’s rhythm. By acquiring the knowledge and insights necessary to tell the story sweetly, fluently, and engagingly, we can make the Passover Seder the electrifying experience it’s designed to be, and charge a new generation of Jews with our eternal values and sacred heritage.
The Haggadah is the story of our birth – the story we were born to tell. On this Pesach, let us tell it in style.The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa and recently produced The Goldstein Family Podcast, which can be accessed on iTunes or your preferred podcast platform.