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The Rabbis as Storytellers •
Introduction: Avadim HayeenuShmuel vs. Rav: Competing Stories Children Ask the Best QuestionsBy Tomorrow, Today Will Be a StoryBen Zoma vs. the Rabbis: Will the Seder Be Superceded?Personal Reflections: My Most Unusual Seder

The Rabbis as Storytellers

Shmuel’s Story: “We were slaves”
When, in time to come, your children ask you: “What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?” You shall say to your children: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. The Lord produced before our eyes great and awful signs and wonders in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and God freed us from there, so that God could take us and give us the land that had been promised on oath to our ancestors” (Deut. 6:20-23).   top

Shmuel vs. Rav: Competing Stories
After the youngest child has asked the four questions and everyone else has added their own questions, then it’s time to tell the story that will explain why for us this night is different from all other nights. The Rabbis recommended:
     “The parent should teach according to the intelligence and personality of each child. Begin with describing the degradation and culminate with the liberation” (Mishna Pesachim X, 2).
     However, Rav and Shmuel, the Babylonian rabbis, disagreed about the central story to be told at this point in the seder:
     Shmuel said: Start with “We were slaves in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 6:20) and move from physical enslavement to political liberation (see page 44).
     Rav said: Start with Terach, Abraham’s father and the state of idolatry to which we had descended. “Once upon a time our ancestors were slaves of idolatry who worshipped pagan gods. Now – since Mount Sinai – God has brought us close to the Divine service” (see Rav's Pesach Story).
     The editors of the Haggadah bring both stories: first Shmuel’s “We were slaves” and later, after the Four Children, Rav’s story.   top

Children Ask the Best Questions
A kindergarden child once asked the teacher: “What does it mean to be a slave? Is it like being the cleaning lady who doesn’t speak English?” Try to answer the child’s question.   top

"By Tomorrow Today Will Be A Story"
saac Bashevis Singer:
     “When a day passes, it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, humans would live like the beasts, only for the day.”
Reb Zebulun said, “Today we live, but by tomorrow today will be a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”
     Children are as puzzled by passing time as grownups. What happens to a day once it is gone? Where are all our yesterdays with their joys and sorrows? Literature helps us remember the past with its many moods. To the storyteller yesterday is still here as are the years and the decades gone by.
     In stories time does not vanish. Neither do people and animals. For the writer and his readers, all creatures go on living forever. What happened long ago is still present.
(I.B. Singer, Nobel prize laureate, Yiddish literature, from Zlateh the Goat)   top

Ben Zoma vs. the Rabbis:
Will the Seder be Superceded?

THE TALMUD RELATES that Ben-Zoma felt that the Messianic redemption would wipe out the memories of all previous troubles and rescues. The Rabbis insisted that while the Messianic redemption would be the greater one, we must still recall the earlier ones, including the Exodus.
     This argument has to do with the importance of memory. For Ben-Zoma, contemporary events have the decisive weight. Some modern Zionist thinkers like Ben-Gurion seem to prefer this position, arguing that the founding of Israel has made 2000 years of exilic experience irrelevant. In their view, the Bible, reflecting the experience of a sovereign people in its land, must be the pivotal educating force for Jewish culture, not the Talmud which grew in the shadow of destruction and conquest by the Romans. Similarly, some might argue that the enormity of the Holocaust makes the recalling of all previous sufferings of the Jews seem trivial and irrelevant.
     The Rabbis maintained that history should add, but not erase memories. Recent dramatic historical events may indeed be accorded prominence, but we should never forget our earlier experiences. In their view, even in the Messianic Era when war, poverty, and human suffering have been eradicated, it will still be incumbent to remember daily the saga of bondage and liberation.   top

Personal Reflections: My Most Unusual Seder
The seder is as much a family renewal ceremony as a remembrance of ancient Egypt. Sharing family memories with the younger members as well as involving the guests, who may feel homesick, will contribute to the bonding of all participants.
     1. Ask the participants, especially the guests, to share a special seder memory. (See The Leader’s Guide for great seders in jewish history).
     2. Ask the participants, especially the oldest ones, to recall their best or their worst moment at the old family seder. (For example, the seder when I had stage fright in the middle of the four questions).