Parshat Passover 5767: Story

This week we read a special reading for Passover. However, in this week's Drash I want to talk about one aspect of the holiday, and its role in Judaism.

The Jewish religion is known by most as a religion of law. The 613 mitzvot and countless halakah definitely lend credence to that view. This view has continued into modernity, but isnt quite true. Laws require enforcement, yet there really is no word for enforcement in biblical Hebrew. The modern Hebrew word for enforcement comes from a root which means to ride a donkey in Rabbinic Hebrew, and has the meaning of oppressive burdens in paltry number of appearances in Tanach, such as Proverbs 16:26. It's clear that the Biblical mind did not have a good view of the idea of enforcement. The biblical law did not use enforcement, it used prophets. Prophets didn't go around arresting anyone not following the law, but instead told the whole nation of their mistakes.

Yet the first Mitzvot given to Israel is the mitzvot surrounding the holiday of Passover, the when and how it is observed. This occurs in Exodus 12 and 13. For a book of mere law, why all the "fluff" before, the stories of Genesis and the early history of Moses? Why have stories interspersed into the laws, Like the one of Nadab and Abihu in next week's reading, or of Miriam's slander and leprosy? Why do we need them?

In terms of Passover, we read as one of those mitzvot found in Exodus 12:

You will observe this matter as an ordinance to your descendants forever. When you come to the land which the Lord will give you as he spoke, then you will observe these services. When your children ask you: What is this service to you? You will answer: This is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord when he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote Egypt but our houses he saved... [Ex 12:24-27]

It was from this and similar passages that the four sons of the Passover haggadah were derived. What is critical in all four passges is the mitzvah that we are to do when we hear that question - tell a story, a tale of the Exodus from Egypt. The word haggadah actually means story. It is derived from the Hebrew verbal root NGD (נגד) which means in its simple tense to be opposite, or facing someone or something. Yet in the causative tense known in Hebrew as the hiphil, this verb hagid (הגיד) means to tell a story, more literally to cause to be opposite someone. The word itself gives a shade of meaning: To tell a story is to make another person sit opposite you. But such a meaning for story presents us with an interesting question: Does this means there is a requirement for there to be a listener for a story, or that telling a story brings people together to listen?

Exodus 13:8, using our word as a command reads

8. And you shall tell (higgadta) your son in that day, saying: This is done because of what the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt.

Notice at first the story is commanded here to be told in the first person, as though each person came out of Egypt personally, and telling the story in a way that the next generation will do the same. By telling the story, we transmit the story to others, to the next generation, who will tell the story to their descendants. It is for this reason we gather at Passover to recite the story of Passover. The youngest at the table traditionally asks the four questions to begin the storytelling process and continuing the tradition of transmitting the story to the next generation.

Story and the explanation of story, known in Hebrew as aggadah, needs the listener not to just transmit the story, but also act on it. Story itself is a very special message; it is the missing part of the enforcement issue. In Judaism we have storytellers instead of enforcers, both of the past and of the future. We have the stories and exclamations of the prophets telling of what would or could happen if the people do not change. But we also have story which helps us to remember why we do the things we do. We eat maror because the Egyptians made the live of the Egyptians bitter. We eat haroset as a remembrance of the clay used for bricks. Story is bound by practice. The theology and ethics, the part missing from the laws and mitzvot, are found in the Aggadah. Theology and ethics are the driving force that moves us from studying law to action. The Tamudic sage Rabbi Gamliel made many Halakic rulings, including mandating we tell of the three things at the Passover table: Passover sacrifice, Matzah and maror. Yet, it is in the Aggadah, he says something even more significant:

Excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation, for the energy by both of them keeps sin out of one's mind; as for all study of the Torah where there is no worldly occupation, the end thereof is that it comes to naught and brings sin in its train;[Avot 2:2]

His son, R. Shimon noted:

All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence. Study is not the most important thing, but deed; whoever indulges in too many words brings about sin. [Avot 1:17]

One can get too bogged down in the details of law, and how to do them. Story on the other hand takes us to the motivation of the law. For Passover it tells us a story, not just of an event millennia in the past, but of our own participation in being free to observe the mitzvot. The Baal Shem Tov even notes that the evil inclination tempts people to sin not by asking them to directly sin, but by getting them to study too much Gemara.

The Baal Shem Tov's disciple, HAsidHYaacov Yosef of Polonnoye was at first a staunch opponent of Hasidism, advocating a very strict acetic life. When R. Yaacov Yosef was the Rabbi of Szarygrod he was very punctual about the time for the Morning Prayer. One morning he goes to the synagogue to find it lock and abandoned. When he finds out that everyone is listening to some stranger telling stories in the marketplace he gets very angry. About ready to flog this man, he goes to the market place to confront him asking him:

"Are you the one who interrupted the communal prayer?" He answered; Rabbi, I am the one." The Baal Shem continued: "I request his eminence not be angry with me. Let me tell him a story." Rabbi Yaacov Yosef listened to the story and was deeply moved by it. He regained piece of mind and was no longer angry. The Besht continued: "If his eminence would like I shall tell him another story" "tell it to me" he replied. When the Besht had finished, still a third story then Yaacov Yosef entered into conversation with him and immediately was joined to him.

The Besht attracts a whole town and converts an opponent by mere story. Interestingly there is a parallel story found in the Talmud:

R. Abbahu and R. Hiyya b. Abba once came to a place; R. Abbahu expounded Aggada and R. Hiyya b. Abba expounded legal lore. All the people left R. Hiyya b. Abba and went to hear R. Abbahu, so that the former was upset. [R. Abbahu] said to him: 'I will give you a parable. To what is the matter like? To two men, one of whom was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom will the people hurry? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?'[Sotah 40b]

Aggadah is cheap. It is easy to absorb on any level of understanding. It is also useful, and that makes it very attractive to the casual observer, bringing them closer. As a teller of story I note how people respond to story compared to a fact. They often listen, not even realizing they are absorbing the information they never would have had I lectured it. Not only that but they remember it long after we part ways. When I mention a story about R. Gamliel and or the rabbis of B'nei B'rak during our Passover Seder, it comes alive at times where people have troubles pronouncing all those rabbis names. When telling a story I am reminded of the Hasidic student who said he was not interested in learning Torah from the Maggid of Metzrich, but how he ties his shoelaces. Yosi. b. Yotzer gives a similar thought when he says in the Perkei Avot [1:4] to cover yourself in the dust of the feet of the sages. Both are discussing the Aggadah of living. Despite a Jewish tradition of nicknaming authors by the names of their works, people are not soulless books. Compare this to the writing on a Torah scroll, there are only consonants there. The vowels are from the human soul: they are the actions and speech of real people when reading the Torah. When we understand those people as people, when we understand how holy even tying your shoelaces are or where a sage get his feet dirty, we understand the person behind it and can model their behavior to be holy -- and get the whole Torah.

Aggadah brings the words of Torah to life, to the frame in which we live our lives, and thus we do both parts of the verb Nagad. We are attracted to Mitzvot that we may not have known of or were reluctant to observe. We are also motivated through Aggadah to actual practice and observance of halakah and mitzvot we may not otherwise do. At Passover we tell a story, the story of the beginning of mitzvot. We tell it because it is a mitzvah to tell the story, to remember the Exodus from Egypt as though we were there. When our families gather together singing Dayeinu or dipping our fingers into the cups of wine for the ten plagues, we tell a story of slavery in the tight place, to the freedom of Torah.