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Passover: The Power of Stories
April 11, 2011
Passover: The Power of Stories

Posted by Marjie Sokoll

Passover, one of the most celebrated Jewish festivals, has always been my favorite. I am sure this is because the seder—the ritual meal—takes place in the home, which gives me the chance, each year, to pause and reflect on my own story as well as that of the Jewish people.

There is a beautiful Hasidic tale about the importance of telling stories. When danger threatened the Jewish community, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, would go to a certain place in the forest to meditate. He would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the Jewish community would be saved from danger. Many years later, when a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov faced a similar situation, he would go to this spot in the forest, recite the special prayer, but did not know how to light the fire. In spite of this, the people were saved from danger. As time passed, a situation of danger arose again, and a third rabbi knew only where to find the special place in the forest. He did not know the special prayer or how to light the fire, but this was enough to save the people. Years passed, and the task of saving the Jewish community fell to Rabbi Israel of Ryzhyn. He did not know the special place in the forest, the special prayer, nor how to light the fire. He could only sit in his chair with his head in his hands and recall the story of the Baal Shem Tov. He hoped it would be enough, and it was.

The festival of Passover begins at sundown on Monday, April 18. This moving Hasidic tale highlights the importance of telling and retelling our stories to each other and to the next generation. Our personal and collective stories are precious. As we learn from the poet Muriel Rukeyser, “the world is made up of stories, not atoms.”

As the years pass, different people sit around the seder table. When we retell the collective narrative of the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to freedom, we also have the opportunity to think about our own story with an evolving circle of friends and relatives. Last Passover, my father was critically ill. Shortly after the seder I found a long lost family Haggadah. The Haggadah, which means “the telling,” is the book that guides us through the seder. This particular Haggadah had my father’s handwriting in it and the names of the people who participated in the seder in 1971 and in previous years. It occurred to me that this Haggadah was a tangible record of the people who had sat around our seder table.

My father died a few days later. But before he died, I was able to share with him the story of the lost Haggadah. I told him that it was a visible reminder not only of the story of the Jewish people’s journey, but of the history of the two of us sitting together at the dining room table, year after year, planning the seder. I knew this would be the final Passover story my father and I would share. That experience with my father has become part of my story. And the Haggadah is like so many of our stories—lost until we rediscover and pass them on, in this instance to the people around the seder table who change from year to year.

Marjorie U. Sokoll, MEd, director of Jewish Life and Healing, is the founder and director of JF&CS Jewish Healing Connections, which helps ensure that people feel a sense of connection when facing the challenges of illness, loss, or isolation by offering spiritual and communal supports to provide hope, comfort, and wholeness guided by Jewish tradition. “It is not good for people to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) Read my previous blog post about grief and the holidays.

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