Who walks dryshod through the sea, who drowns, who tells the story

I was thinking about the Passover Seder, as I do at this time of year, and how the Haggadah chooses to tell the Exodus story. One of the things I often think about storytelling is the choice of when in the story to start telling it, and when to stop. If we take a different story—you could decide to start telling, say, the Alexander Hamilton story at his birth, or at his arrival in the US, or at the start of the war, or even start at his death and fill in the earlier stuff later. And you could stop it at his death, or at Burr’s death, or Eliza’s death. It changes the story you are telling.

When the Torah tells the story of the Exodus, it starts… well, it starts with the creation of the world, really. But the Book of Exodus, and the story of Exodus, starts with the Israelites being fruitful and multiplying and filling the land, and the rising up of a new king who knew them not. But the Haggadah doesn’t really start there, does it? The Haggadah, really, starts with—well, where does it start?

In a sense, the Haggadah starts with the seder. The first thing we recite, or at least the first thing we recite in my end of the tradition, is the order of the seder: Kadesh, urchatz, karpas, yachatz, etc. The story of Passover starts with the observance of Passover, and then progresses, naturally, into the questions of what we are doing and why. It doesn’t progress in any sort of chronological way, but by symbols. We move backward and forward in time, talking about the Rabbis at Bene Barak and then back to Jacob and Laban, and then about Gamliel and Hillel in Temple times, always coming back to our table and the seder itself. Modern Haggadahs include modern incidents—the Holocaust, the movement for Women’s equality (and the backlash to it), current aspects of slavery and oppression—often explicitly drawing attention to their inclusion in or exclusion from the seder. The story of Passover is the story of the seder, the story of the story of Passover.

In another sense, the Haggadah starts the story of the Exodus with the description of our bitter enslavement. We begin (after the order of the seder and the Kiddush over the wine) with dipping a leaf in salt water and eating it. We don’t explain it yet, but we do it: the tears of slavery. To the extent that we reconstruct the narrative story of Exodus in the seder, in a fractured way, it does not start with Joseph but with the enslaved generation. And we move forward through the plagues to the parting of the Red Sea, and pretty much stop there. We don’t even get to the other side, in any significant way: we don’t sing the Mi chamocha or talk about the wilderness years. It starts just before the plagues do, and ends just after.

A thing that struck me this year was in the text that explains the Three Great Symbols (shloshah d’varim, a call back or possibly forward to Simon the Just in Pirke Avot 1:2) of Passover, the ones that Rabban Gamliel says you must absolutely explain or fail in your duty. For the bitter herb and the matzah, we say: maror (or matzah) zeh she’anu okhlim, al shum mah? This bitter herb (or matzah) that we eat, what’s that about? But for the shankbone, we say pesach she’hyoo avotenu (v’imotenu) ochlin, bizman she-bayt ha-mikdash hayah kayam, al shum mah? The Passover offering that our ancestors ate in the time of the Temple, what’s that about?

We don’t say, why do we have a shankbone on the plate? We say, why did our ancestors sacrifice at the Temple? We have a shankbone on the plate because our ancestors sacrificed at the Temple, and our ancestors sacrificed at the Temple because the Divine passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt.

This bit comes immediately after Dayenu, which is pretty much the Passover song in a whole week of Passover songs. Dayenu is strongly chronological, starts with being brought forth from Egypt, and takes us into the wilderness, Mount Sinai, the giving of the Law, into the Land of Israel, and then up to the Temple itself… and stops there. From that point of view, the story begins and ends at the temple. Sort of.

Of course, the Haggadah is only the liturgy. You can tell the story whenever you like, including at the seder—and as we say every year, the more you tell the story, the more praiseworthy you are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

4 thoughts on “Who walks dryshod through the sea, who drowns, who tells the story

  1. irilyth

    > as we say every year, the more you tell the story, the more praiseworthy you are

    The Haggadah that Chaos uses says “the more you tell the story, the more praiseworthy it becomes”, or some phrase like that — something that implies to me that the *story* is made more praiseworthy by retelling it. I’m not sure what that means; what makes a story more or less praiseworthy? I’m not sure, but “the number of times you tell it” doesn’t seem to me to have much to do with it. Hm.

    > In Which Your Humble Blogger wrings yet another note out of the haggadah text. Surely, though, this is the last one, and next year I will not find anything new to say.

    ha ha ha good one :^ )

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      The text says: even if we were all wise people (khokhmeem), all discerning people (n’voneem), all elders (z’kaneem) and all knowledgeable in Torah (yoda’eem et Torah), still we would be obliged to tell the story of the departure from Egypt—and multiplying the telling of the departure from Egypt is indeed a matter of praise.

      Now, we generally interpret that as something like the more you tell the Exodus story, the more praiseworthy you are, which is indeed the clear translation, and that’s good. But now that you’ve made me look at it closely… the first part of that is talking about people with certain attributes (almost, but not exactly, the same attributes for the leaders chosen by Moses in Deuteronomy 1:13) who are doing some of the telling, and the second part is about multiplying the telling. I think the implication (or at least my inference) is that it is praiseworthy to increase the telling by increasing the number of tellers—that is, by creating more people who will eventually be wise, discerning, experienced and learned in Torah.

      I am sure that the rabbis have commented on the difference between wisdom, discernment, experience and knowledge, but perhaps that will be next year’s learning.


      1. irilyth

        Hm, yeah, I think I was just misplacing the “it”, and that Chaos’s interpretation is correct: “it” refers to the act of talking about the Exodus, not about the Exodus itself. It still strikes me as a weird phrase, but at least I think I know what it’s trying to say now. :^ )

  2. Chaos

    Hmm. It’s “The more one talks about the Exodus, the more praiseworthy it is,” and i didn’t write that wording, but i’ve always interpreted it as meaning that the telling (your action) is praiseworthy, not the tale.


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