Posted on

Seder Talk: Telling the Story of Our Sustained Happiness

Excerpted from Dr. Erica Brown’s ‘Seder Talk: A Conversational Haggada,’ co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Telling the Story of Our Sustained Happiness

Memory is often linked to tragedy. But memory can and should trigger deep joy as well. In addition to the pain of the experiences mentioned above, our Passover memory point can recall miracles that create in us responses of gratitude, abundance, and happiness. If it does not do this, then perhaps we are denying ourselves a door into greater contentment and serenity. Passover can invite us to a happy memory point, but we must take God and our history up on the invitation, replacing the gloom-and-doom side of our story with joy and optimism instead.

The stories we tell always hold an opportunity for us to shape ourselves, depending on the narrative we choose. “All of us tell stories about ourselves. Stories define us,” write Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback in their Harvard Business Review article “What’s Your Story?” When we know someone well, the authors remind us, it is because we know key aspects of his or her story: the experiences, trials, and turning points that have made them who they are. “When we want someone to know us, we share stories of our childhoods, our families, our school years, our first loves, the development of our political views, and so on,” the authors tell us. They emphasize that people need a good story most at times of transition, for those who are doing the telling and for those who are doing the listening. A story about transitions explains why we are leaving or moving or joining or participating. In-between times beg for explanation, a compelling narrative that we tell ourselves and others. What we find most compelling about stories is how the world changes as a result of them, be it the narrow world we occupy or the world at large. It’s the “change, conflict, tension, discontinuity” of stories that makes them dynamic and engaging. “If those elements are missing, the story will be flat. It will lack what novelist John Gardner called the profluence of development – the sense of moving forward, of going somewhere. Transition stories don’t have this problem,” point out Ibarra and Lineback.

Many people, however, do not want to share conflict or tension when they tell their stories because they are afraid it will look like personal failure or will communicate to others that they were lost or made poor decisions. But  listeners are waiting for the conflict because it is the drama of the story that holds us. All good stories that inspire have heroes and villains, moments of trauma or critical decision-making, or poor beginnings that may turn into good endings. The Passover story has held our attention for so many centuries because of its drama, its quest for justice, and its resonance with so many other stories of people who were displaced or exploited but were nonetheless able to find a voice and a cause. As a result, we understand why Deuteronomy commands that this memory point be triggered daily: “so that you remember the day of your Exodus from Egypt all the days of your life” (Deut. 16:3). The Exodus was more than an event. It represented the most cherished values we have, and as such it must inform every other day from the day of the Exodus forward.

That same chapter of Deuteronomy mentions all of the major pilgrimage festivals and the joy that is attendant upon them, closing with the Hebrew expression “vehayita akh same’aĥ.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the neo-Orthodox head of the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main in Germany in the 1850s, translates this expression as, “you shall remain only joyful.” He contrasts this command with the imperative “vesamaĥta,” “you should be happy.” Rabbi Hirsch believes that remaining joyful is a higher degree of happiness than merely being happy, a temporal state generated by a temporal action. He also believes there is a difference between the happiness of an individual in the context of a family and the joy of a person in the context of a community. National unity and a sense of living for a larger purpose has the power to sustain our happiness even when individual sources of joy dry up or wane.

It is on this last point that we turn to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of Palestine, who never lived to see the State of Israel, the impossible possibility:

The Exodus from Egypt only appears to be a past event. But, in truth, the
Exodus never ceases. The arm of God that was revealed in Egypt to redeem
the Jews is constantly outstretched, constantly active. The revelation of
the hand of God is the breaking through of the light of God, shining great
lights for all generations. (Mo’adei HaRaya, 292)

When we are surprised by positive developments and events, we become renewed by the energy and force of redemption, and we can indeed make impossible things possible. The positive spiral upward fuels more redemption, more possibility. The Exodus, as Rav Kook writes, is no longer a past event but one that occurs again and again, a breaking forth of a small light that becomes larger and increasingly radiant, sweeping us up with optimism and joy. Between the order and the chaos, the beauty of the familiar and the surprise of the unexpected, every Passover we find ourselves facing a choice of how each of us will contribute to our larger, national redemption. Redemption is a choice. Sustaining happiness is also a choice. Choose joy.