The annual rituals that make up Jewish life are characterized by their sameness: Every year, we say the same blessing over the Hanukkah candles, read the exact same text during Purim, and listen on Rosh Hashanah to the same Torah reading with the haunting tale of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac.
Passover, in contrast, invites a certain degree of variation. Everyone remembers the key moments of the Seder—the four questions, the four sons, “Dayenu.” But the richness of the Seder comes not from the mandatory recitation of the same songs and passages, but from the discussion of those songs and passages from different perspectives. For this, an entire cottage industry of Haggadah variants has arisen. The Maxwell House Haggadah, which many people remember from their youth, is still around, to be sure ($6.12 on Amazon), but there are thousands of other editions as well. One can find Haggadot from all strains of Judaism, from all political perspectives (there is now a Biden-Harris Haggadah available, no thanks), and from a variety of senses of humor, including Dave Barry, Dry Bones, and even a Yada Yada Haggadah.
It is into this universe of open discussion that Mark Gerson brings his book The Telling (which is how you translate Haggadah into English). Every year, Jews around the world seek examples and ideas and additional insight to initiate conversations at the Seder, Judaism’s most observed ritual. Gerson’s volume is not a Haggadah, but a series of essays on seemingly every aspect of the Passover holiday. The Telling is part resource guide, part personal journey, and all in all a quirky look into Gerson’s wide and varied interests.
Gerson began his career as a public-school teacher and published both a book and an essay collection on neoconservative ideas before becoming a successful business consultant. As this brief biography indicates, he’s something of a polymath who comfortably weighs in on history, brain chemistry, sports, political philosophy, anti-Semitism, even the merits of synagogue Kiddish Clubs. He finds a way to connect all these topics to Passover.
One recurring theme is the search for meaning. Everyone struggles with it, and on Gerson’s podcast, The Rabbi’s Husband, he confronts every guest with an insight from André Malraux—that no man is as happy as he may appear. Such was the case, he tells us, with Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb, a rabbi, psychotherapist, and senior official with the Orthodox Union. Weinreb had a crisis of the soul in his thirties and reached out to the Lubavitcher rebbe for answers. He called the rebbe’s office, explained who he was, and told the rebbe’s secretary that he wanted to meet the great man. The rebbe’s secretary shouted to the rebbe that “a yid from Baltimore” wanted to see him. The rebbe’s response: “Tell him that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to. Der yid hayst Weinreb [his name is Weinreb].” Hearing this, Weinreb protested that he was, in fact, the aforementioned Weinreb. The secretary relayed the rebbe’s response: “If that’s the case, then he should know that sometimes one needs to speak to himself.” Weinberg understood the rebbe’s meaning: The answers needed to come from within. He called it “a life-changing moment.”
Other essays here relate to America and the American Jewish experience. Gerson notes that the example of Moses recurs in the stories told about key figures in American life, “from [William] Bradford to [Pastor] Jones, from Lincoln to King, from Paine to Obama, from DeMille to Superman, from Tubman to [George W.] Bush, from Franklin to the Architect of the Capitol.” Based on this, he places the Passover story in the American context, saying that “American history is an exercise in the living and retelling the story of the Exodus.”
Another interesting wrinkle: Moses may be a commonly referenced figure in American history, but he is not mentioned even once in the Haggadah. So how can Moses be so essential to telling the American story but so inessential to the story of Exodus in the text we are obliged to use to mark it? While Weinreb needed to reach inside himself for answers, the Seder requires us to tell the story by reaching outside the Haggadah. Moses comes up at every Seder, but we must to bring him up in our own words as opposed to those from a pre-written document.
Other questions on the Seder abound. With regard to the four sons, for example, why is there a wise son but no good son? The opposite of evil is not wisdom, but goodness. The Jewish response is that everyone has a yetzer hara, an evil inclination, and part of the challenge of Judaism and humanity alike is to take that evil inclination and channel it toward productive endeavors.
Gerson endeavors to make all this relatable to a modern American audience, so much so that one may wonder how relatable the text would be outside the American context. On Moses remaining at full strength until the end of his life, Gerson writes, “Moses is not Willie Mays with the Mets or Michael Jordan with the Wizards.” Sports fans of a certain age, this author included, will remember both of those legends not performing up to expected levels in their final seasons—but who else will?
No matter: There are enough American Jews with enough questions about Passover—not to mention the role of Judaism in their lives—that they can benefit from this easily accessible guide to Judaism’s most observed holiday. The Telling is a winsome and intriguing treatment of Passover that provides insights from a widely read and passionate author whose main goal is to inspire interesting conversations at the Seder table that will make us all more thoughtful and engaged Jews.
Gerson puts it succinctly and well in his conclusion: “This is the best time in history to be a Jew, and the worst to be our enemy.” The availability of a plethora of study resources for Jews of any level—now including The Telling—helps validate his optimism.
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