“On the Seder night, we do not just learn halakha or tell a story”

The Haggadah…tells the story of the gathering of sages differently. In its version, the sages, including Rabbi Eliezer, were not discussing halakha. They were simply telling the narrative of the Exodus. Even these great sages understood the mitzvah this night is to tell the story, to present a larger narrative that gives meaning and direction to our religious lives. Where did this all begin, how did we get here, where are we going? These are big religious questions that we can all ask and, on this night, we must ask.

The events of the following morning reflect this more inclusive approach. Rather than taking themselves to the study hall, the sages are reminded by their students to say the morning Shema. In this, they are reminded not to become so engrossed in their study that they forget the basic affirmation of faith that everyone does each morning; they cannot sequester themselves in the study hall and in their narrow discourse. On the Seder night, the next morning, and throughout the year, they must be part of the larger religious faith of the people.

The real mitzvah is neither la’asok, to do intensive study of halakha, or li’saper, to merely tell a story. Rather, it is to do as the Mishna in Pesachim instructs: doresh me’Arami oved avi, to explicate the verses of, “A wandering Armenian was my father…” We are to start not with the Biblical telling of the story in Shemot but its re-telling in Devarim. Our mitzvah is not to tell, but to retell, a story, or more accurately, to re-retell a story. Through retelling we make the story our own. We decide what to emphasize and what to leave out; we tell it in a way that makes us a part of the telling.

The retelling we do this evening takes a particular form. The key word here is doresh. We engage in classic rabbinic talmud Torah, not the more exclusivist intensive study of halakha but the Torah she’b’al peh that is our communal heritage. This is the taking of Biblical verses, the Torah that God has given us, and explicating them, interpreting them, asking what each phrase means. How should it be understood? How is it relevant? It is the bringing of the fullness of our selves – our experiences, values, worldview, questions, critical thought, and faith – into conversation with God’s Torah. What results is a Torah she’b’al peh, a Torah that is both God’s and our own.

That is why the characters of the Haggadah are not Moshe, Aharon and Pharoah. The characters of the Haggadah are Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Akiva, and all those who were a part of explicating the Haggadah, all those who found themselves in the story. The key question this night is, can we engage and retell the story in such a way that we, too, will become characters in the Haggadah?

On the Seder night, we do not just learn halakha or tell a story. We bring these two approaches together, telling a story through the lens of Torah she’b’al peh. The sages among us are asked to weave their narrower Torah into a larger narrative of religious meaning, and those of us who would normally be happy just to sit back and listen are pushed to become active participants in the telling and meaning-making. This night, we must all make the story our own. Only in this way will it gain real traction and translate into our lives. Only in this way will we, too, become part of the story.

Rabbi Dov Linzer, “Why Not Just Tell the Story?”, A Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva (1 April 2015) [http://rabbidovlinzer.blogspot.com/2015/04/a-thought-on-pesach.html]