Telling the story: Where to begin?

By RABBI MICAH PELTZ/Temple Beth Sholom.

Rabbi Micah Peltz

The most important part of our Passover seder is telling the story of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom. The Four Questions that the youngest at the table asks serves as a prompt for this story, and I imagine that we think we know it well. We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, God, through Moshe, got us out and gave us Torah, let’s eat! This is one way to tell the story.  But it is not the only way.

In the Talmud, there is a debate between Rav and Shmuel, two great teachers from the early 3rd century, about where to begin the telling of the Exodus story. Shmuel argues that we should begin telling the story with the words Avadim Hayenu–We were slaves in Egypt. These words appear in the Haggadah right after the Four Questions. We sing them as a response to the youngest’s queries. Beginning the story with being slaves in Egypt makes this a story about physical slavery. This interpretation has caused the story of the Exodus to inspire other liberation movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, in America and around the world. It is indeed a powerful and relevant story for today, and how most of us think about the story of the Exodus.

Rav, however, argues that we need to begin our story even earlier than Egypt. He thinks we should go all the way back to Terah, Abraham’s father, who worshipped idols. Rav’s version of the story is also represented in the Haggadah. Right after we speak about the Four Children, the Haggadah says, “In the beginning our ancestors worshipped idols, but now God has brought us near to God’s service.” And the story continues from there. For Rav, the slavery that we celebrate our freedom from on Passover is spiritual slavery. Our ancestors were once enslaved to idols, but now we worship God.

This story of liberation from spiritual slavery deserves more attention.  While Terah’s wooden and stone idols might not be in vogue anymore, there are plenty of idols that we worship today. Money, power, celebrity, and selfishness can all be idols. They can distract our attention from the eternal values that guide us in being good and decent people. These idols can also cause the removal of the guardrails that help make a good and decent society.

There is a midrash about the golden calf, perhaps the most famous idol ever constructed, that says “There is no generation that does not carry a vestige of the Golden Calf.” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg understands this by saying it is as if “Some resistant strain [of the golden calf] remains in the blood, breaking out anew in every generation.”  What are the vestiges of the golden calf we see in our world today? What are the modern idols that we worship?

Ask these questions at your seder. I’m sure you’ll get some interesting responses. For Rav, it is this freedom from the spiritual slavery of idolatry that we celebrate on Passover. But are we really still free? Like with Shmuel’s story, though the ancient Israelites were freed from their physical slavery, there are still people enslaved today that deserve their freedom. So too with spiritual slavery. The ancient Israelites were freed from their spiritual slavery, but what idols do we need to free ourselves from today?


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