Stories That Awaken Us – Not Bedtime Stories

The day after the Pesach seder you’ll invariably hear kids vying with each other—bragging “until what time our seder lasted”, how long they “stayed awake”. You could say they are proud of how well they performed the mitzvah of “Telling the Story of the Exodus”. Maimonides’ sefer HaMitzvot explicitly says, “whoever adds in speech and draws out what G-d did for us…and praises him more is better, as they said [in the hagaddah itself] ‘whoever recounts more is praiseworthy'” and R’ Yosef Karo emphasizes (Orah Hayim 473), “a person is obligated to engage in the laws of Pesach and the Exodus from Egypt and recount the miracles and wonders that G-d did for our forefathers until sleep overtakes him [!]”. I’d like to suggest that in the recounting of the miracles G-d wrought and review of the laws, great significance lies in the performance of this mitzvah being story-based. The verb “Lesaper” (meaning to recount or to tell a story) indicates that length and staying awake are part of something more essential.

Whats Your Story Sticky NoteStories, R’ Nahman of Breslov teaches us, are not just something to stay awake for, they are a vehicle to awaken us. A spiritually slumbering person should not be jolted by a slap in the face—he should be told a story so that higher truths may be clothed in a palatable form, allowing him to see himself and his current situation for what it really is, potentially inspiring change. The story-form invites personal identification with the story—as opposed to dry facts that may or may not touch us. Moreover, stories take raw truths and give them a life-form that is lacking in a philosophical text—we see them actualized in reality. Stories circumvent our rational selves that are finite—the infinite layers of meaning in a story leave room for the infinite layers of perceptions of G-dliness and the truths of His Torah.

In the same vein I would like to contrast the telling of the “Going out from Egypt” from Bedtime Stories—while both are familiar rituals, the latter is designed to put to sleep, the former, to awaken us. Re-telling the Exodus story invites us personally to “see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt”. We are enjoined to go on and on telling at length, each year, not as a test of endurance, but as reflection of the fact that the story of our deliverance is ongoing and infinite in scope and in meaning.

With that in mind, one facet of story-telling that could enhance our upcoming Leil HaSeder is utilizing our imagination to the fullest—what did happen that night? Were the decrees like the incremental genocidal decrees of the Nazis or like the societal-economic-based affliction of the black slaves or like the secret slave trafficking of today? Try on different midrashim for size to paint a picture and then imagine the exodus in comparable terms of freedom. Freedom from what? For what?

A striking example of this is found in Chapter 7 of Rabbi Klonimus Kalmish of Piacezne’s “Hachsharat HaAvrechim” where he states that “you won’t know if things really happened the way you imagine them…but you expand in your mind along the lines of the principles laid out in the Torah and the drashot” and then proceeds to do so in his own voice. In his recounting, certain midrashim echo the state of the Jews in pre-WWII Poland and he imagines the Exodus night as one where first children and then the adults break out in great song and dance—led by Moshe and Aharon the nation literally danced out of Egypt singing the verses of Hallel, “B’Tzait Yisrael MiMitzrayim” and “We give praise, the servants of G-d [and not the servants of Paroah].”

Led by the story, we have the mitzvah and opportunity not only to stay awake for many hours but to allow the telling to awaken in us new insights, and a personal feeling of redemption.

Jordanna Cope-YossefJordanna Cope-Yossef holds an LLB from Hebrew University and a Master’s in Law from the joint Tel-Aviv – Northwestern executive LLM program in Public and International law. She is a Nishmat certified “Halakhic Advisor”, a senior lecturer in Talmud, bio-medical Ethics and Jewish Law at Matan and other colleges, seminars and conferences. From 1999-2012 Ms. Cope-Yossef was director of Matan’s Advanced Talmudic Institute for Women and was recently hired as Director of the Assistance Center at Itim in Jerusalem. In 2005 she founded and continues to teach the first women’s daf yomi for women by women. Cope-Yossef leads the Beit Hillel Rabbis’ initiative on Get Refusal Solutions (GRS) that promotes, among other means, prenuptials, as a preemptive solution to the problem of Get refusal.

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2 Responses to Stories That Awaken Us – Not Bedtime Stories

  1. Daniel April 11, 2014 at 6:51 PM #

    Inspiring – thank you.

    • BeitHillel April 12, 2014 at 8:53 PM #

      You’re Welcome!

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