Voices from the field

Story-telling, Time-telling: A Reflection on Pesach

By Shalom Orzach

Have you ever wondered why we use the term “to tell the time”? In Hebrew, the word for “count” is lispor (לספור), which derives from the same word as “tell” lesaper (לספר). The seven week period that ties Pesach to Shavuot, Sefirat Haomer (ספירת העומר), is not just about counting time; it is about telling time in the way we tell stories. Our sense of time is actualized through telling it; this act of counting, or more poignantly telling, our story is fundamental to the very essence of who we are. These concepts implicit in telling our stories (lesaper sipurim, לספר סיפורים) are inseparably related in Hebrew, embedded in the pedagogy of Pesach, and should inform our roles as Israel educators

Nowhere is this idea more palpable than on Pesach. Here, the concept of both telling and defying time is central – it is the source, intent, and outcome of the Pesach celebration. To misquote the Haggadah, just to tell the story of Pesach would be dayenu, “enough." But we go so much further – our way of telling is actualizing the story of Pesach. We re-enact the events and core values intrinsic to the holiday, enabling us to achieve this almost transcendent endeavor.

This style of “telling” becomes a definitive method of education – the subject becomes the “subjects." Pesach centers around the participants of our Seder tables. Barry Chazan expands upon this concept further in the Aleph Bet of Israel Education and his recent article, The Subject of Israel Education is Not Israel. This form of narration is key to empowering educators to become tellers rather than teachers who empower youth to interact with the Jewish past, present, and future.

The way we open the decisive act of storytelling, the Seder of Pesach, speaks to this method. We begin by describing the bread of affliction through those that ate it: "All who are hungry, come and eat!" This dramatic announcement turns the subject into subjects, making it our story. Why is this declaration -- inviting the poor and hungry -- limited to Pesach and not all festive meals, including Shabbat? This very act is more than a romantic or aspirational introduction; it demonstrates the unique way we story tell (and re-tell) through actualizing what essentially occurred on that first night of Exodus. Our first mitzvah (commandment) as a People is the requirement to proclaim the new month, or to tell time. The story continues with detailed instructions of what the Children of Israel must do prior to their exodus from Egypt: sacrifice a lamb, eat it roasted, and leave nothing. There are also specific instructions as to how to eat the lamb in a hurry! Through this set of instructions we are enacting ritual and memory for events that have yet to occur. We are telling, even defying, time.

We begin the Passover story by inviting and creating community, and that is also how it concludes. Our story is about the formation of a People who commit themselves to each other. On this night of exodus from slavery, we celebrate our freedom to acknowledge, influence and – most importantly – tell time. We tell of and demonstrate acts that are totally counterintuitive to the behavior of slaves (ie - not allowed to have any leftovers, sharing food, breaking the bread of affliction, etc.) And it is through this telling of time that our collective story is formed with the end goal of a stronger community. So, with that, I want to ask: How can we teach less and tell more?