Talking Ourselves to Free

I recently participated on a panel about reframing the “Jewish narrative” at the inaugural Bay Area Limmud. The topic was suggested by Rabbi Joshua Fenton at the SF Bureau of Jewish Education, and the panel was premised on the notion that the dominant Jewish narrative in the last century was one of survival. The panelists were asked to suggest a new Jewish narrative, one that focused more on the value that Judaism can add to people’s lives, and less on Jewish endurance in the face of hostility. And yet, with the recent tragedy in France, and the shadow of the threat of Iran, and the continued fragility of the State of Israel, it unfortunately remains painfully clear that the Jewish people’s survival is still so fragile. Is it time, then, for a new narrative? Is it naive? Is it productive?

Passover seems to be the paradigmatic Jewish holiday to affirm and celebrate Jewish survival. Each year, at the Passover Seder, we connect ourselves to the plight of the ancient Israelites by claiming that, “it was not one alone who stood over us, a heel on our necks, bent on our annihilation, but, in generation after generation, they rise up against us, intent on destroying us. And yet, the Holy One, blessed is He, breaks their grip and we are saved” (New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander). The narrative of the Jewish people, on the one hand, is the narrative of the Exodus from Israel. The core observance of the holiday is to tell and re-tell this story, to keep it alive and make it ours, and, moreover “all who are expansive in the telling of the Exodus from Egypt are worthy of praise” (ibid).

But what does it mean to be “expansive” in the telling of this story? The Sfat Emet has an interesting response, which, I think, points to the fact that the purpose of Passover is not to keep telling the same story over and over, but to risk telling new stories. In his commentary on the holiday of Passover, he writes: “the story of the Exodus is not intrinsically good or praiseworthy. Rather, it becomes good and praiseworthy through the telling.” Only when we engage in the “telling” – questioning the narrative, challenging it, exploring it, weaving it into something that resonates for us today, does the story become “good and praiseworthy.”

In fact, the Exodus itself, especially in the re-telling of the story through the lens of rabbinic literature, emphasizes the use of language and stories to paint new narratives. Freedom depends upon the ability to imagine, to portray a potentially new narrative in the face of one that is harmful and unsustainable. Pharaoh created a reality of death with his decrees; the midwives literally spoke up to him, telling him a story to create a new reality – “the Hebrew women are vigorous, lively – before the midwives can come to them, they have given birth” (Exodus 1; translation by Avivah Zornberg). The second chapter of Exodus tells of a man from the House of Levi “going,” and the Talmud in Sotah asks: “Where did he go?” It explains that he “went according to the counsel of his daughter Miriam,” who convinced him, with her words, that he should not divorce his wife, that he should not give up despite the reality that he was facing of potentially having a son who would be killed. We can only move, and grow, if we imagine new possibilities that widen the space of the realities that confine us. And this process begins with radical speech. Avivah Zornberg, in her commentary on Exodus, writes, “to utter words is to create an alternative world, a world of undifferentiated life.” This use of language is extremely potent; it is the language in the vein of Paulo Freire, who, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, explains, “to speak a true word is to transform the world… [and] to exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it.” No wonder Moses claims to be “heavy of mouth, heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:11). Who wouldn’t, in the face of such language?

The Passover model and imperative is to continue to tell new stories that redeem us from the narrow space of the stories that have come to define and confine us. In the face of a narrative of fear and survival, we are dared to write a narrative of courage and the potential to thrive. That is what moves us towards freedom, towards wholeness. Let’s use this opportunity to tell new stories, to playfully paint new possibilities for our community and our world. Let’s be less heavy-lipped, and dare to re-think our narrative, our purpose, our structures, our institutions, our collaborations. Let’s include new voices and sing new songs, as has been our custom since days of yore.

This piece was originally printed in the Jewish Week. Maya Bernstein is the Director of Education at UpStart Bay Area, a social innovation and consulting firm that partners with entrepreneurs, start-ups, and established organizations to redesign the experience and expression of modern Jewish life.