A little over a week ago, I led a small seder on the second night of Pesach (Passover). The second seder can be hard to lead because the specialness and holiness of the first often turns into redundancy when the ritual is repeated on the second night. Planning the seder, I was concerned wit distinguishing it from the preceding night at my parents’ house. I was thinking about what we covered the previous seder and what, because of the larger group of people, we might have missed.
A seder is an ordered meal: each section of the meal has a name and a particular ritual, food, and/or blessing assigned to it. For my seder, I decided to focus on the section maggid, wherein we retell the story of the Exodus and the origins of the Pesach seder. It is often the longest part of the seder or the part that many families skip over to get to food faster. I do not begrudge those who skip maggid, because it is often presented in the prayerbook (haggadah) in a dry and repetitive way, even though, at its core, it is sacred storytelling. As a poet, playwright and student of theology and the arts, focusing on maggid for my seder seemed like a no brainer. But how could we retell this story that we tell twice a year in a way that holds immediate meaning for us now?
I turned to the word maggid. Maggid not only means storytelling and homiletics but also refers to the person who teaches through storytelling. I researched what several Jewish texts say about the maggid, and came across a story in the Talmud, about Rabbi Abbahu, a maggid:
"Rabbi Abbahu and Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba happened to come to a certain place. Rabbi Abbahu taught matters of aggadah (stories, tales) and at the same time Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba taught halakha (Law, jurisprudence). Everyone left Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba and went to Rabbi Abbahu, and Rabbi Ḥiyya was offended. Rabbi Abbahu said to him, to appease him: I will tell you a parable: To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to two people, one who sells precious stones and one who sells trinkets [sidkit]. Upon whom do the customers spring? Don’t they spring upon the one who sells trinkets? Similarly, you teach lofty and important matters that do not attract many people. Everyone comes to me because I teach minor matters" (Sotah 40a).
In his humility, Rabbi Abbahu spoke of the maggid as akin to a seller of trinkets, small things. The maggid, or storyteller, teaches “minor matters.” However, as I continued my research, I found that in Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism), the term maggid also refers to a mystical entity, often an angel, who takes the form of a voice delivering secrets of the divine. Imagine the universe taking shape as one small utterance, whisper, thought. A communication seemingly mundane and utterly intimate can hold the world.
This year, during maggid, I shared the story from the Talmud and the lessons from Kabbalah, and my parents, guests, and I explored what it means to tell a story and particulars of the Passover story. Inspired by critical literacy exercises a la Freire, the five of us each drew a slip of paper with a character from the Exodus story. Then we were each given about five minutes to tell the story from our characters' perspectives. When we shared what we had written, we heard from Moses’s wife , a Hebrew slave, an Egyptian peasant, Pharaoh’s first-born, and Moses’s brother. And we imagined, together, what these characters thought of Moses, of Pharaoh, of God? We heard what they might have felt about the land of Egypt and their experiences during the plagues. And as we told stories from a variety of perspectives, we saw more clearly the perspective presented in the text of the haggadah and which stories were not present.
It was a fun activity. At least at first. But it eventually led into a deeper conversation, as we began to unfurl discourses within our sacred text and ritual. We noticed how similar the Egyptian peasant and Hebrew slave’s perspectives might have been, and how they were both at the whims of a ruling class. We noticed what social and political biases are in the text and that we brought to it. We asked what it means for a group of white Jews to tell the story of our mythological enslavement while we sit in the US, a country historically founded on slavery.
This Pesach, I was reminded how important it is not to tell stories but to be engaged with stories. We must receive these stories with critical minds, minds that can play and illuminate and listen and argue and love and wrestle. Our stories hold worlds, and we must take care of the worlds we speak while we take care of the physical world where we eat, drink, and sleep. As I wander into the wilderness of media, news, politics, education, and life--Pesach behind me--, I lean into the swirling nexus of voices, with open ears. My heart yields to the murmuring in hopes to grasp a whisper, a voice, that maggid which holds our fraught and wondrous world.
Interested in the intersection of Theology and the Arts at United?