Secrets and stories

This past Passover my daughter, who had just turned three, sang the four questions at our seder. It was a lovely moment for me. She also delighted in finding the afikomen, in dipping parsley in salt water, and in eating the traditional egg (she really likes eggs). As we and Jews around the world tell the story of the Exodus around our seder tables, we are part of generations who use the occasion of Passover to instil Jewish learning and identity. Passover, like other holidays such as Purim and Chanukah, is designed to excite the imaginations of children. These holidays work to teach our kids and remind ourselves as adults that we are part of a special, distinct group of people, and that our traditions help make us who we are.
Passover is a night of questions. So here is mine: does it matter that the Exodus, as we tell it, almost certainly didn’t happen at all? Is it wrong to share this story and participate in all of the many traditions Jews have built around it, knowing that it is, in short, a fabrication?
Here’s a related example: on Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees. This is a story that is based in history. And yet, who were the Maccabees? Religious zealots who killed their fellow people who wanted to Hellenize, who were interested in literature, art, mathematics, sport, and expanding their cultural base. These are our heroes?
Passover is a time for questions. And, as Humanistic Jews, we are big believers in questioning. One of the things that first attracted me to this movement when I was a teenager, was that when I asked a question, people were excited and eager to share what they knew. When I had asked questions in more traditional and religious environments, my sense was that they were shielding me from information. And truth mattered to me then. It matters to me now.
So, am I a hypocrite for spreading the mis-truth of the Exodus story? Should I tell my daughter it’s all make believe? She’s three now. Is it ok for her to believe in fantasy for a while longer? How much longer? These are new questions for Passover and beyond in our age.
A few years ago I offered rabbinic support and some programming at the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s youth conclave. Many Oraynu teens were there. We did an exercise on truth and fiction. One of the questions I asked was whether it mattered that the Exodus story wasn’t real. And the teens, brilliantly, answered that stories don’t have to be true to make them real. In other words, the events of the Exodus story don’t have to be true for them to have real impacts on our lives, as we take their symbolic meaning and apply to it our current world.
In singing the four questions, and asking many more questions than those four, in participating in the rituals of the seder, in coming together to talk about our stories and our histories, we make an untrue story into an event that is real for us. Our struggles for freedom and justice, as individuals and as a people, are very real.
For many years I devoted myself to the study of literature. I also have a degree in History, but it was through literature that I really learned about the lives of people who have suffered in wars (Timothy Findley’s “The Wars,”,) live in places far from here, with their histories of colonization and resistance (Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”), occupy identities and have histories different from my own, such as Black survivors of slavery (Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”), and understand Canada very differently than I have as a white settler (Thomas King’s “Green Grass Running Water”). All of these are fictional narratives of freedom struggles. They at times overlap with our own narratives as Jews. At times, they diverge. None of these are true stories, but all of them give us insight into the truths of these historical and contemporary realities. This is the complicated interplay between fact and fiction.
I believe in the power of stories. And I believe in distinguishing fact from fiction. I believe we can have our Jewish narrative tradition and also be honest about what is true.
So, when I tell my kids the story of Passover, I will be real with them as they grow about what we know and don’t know. I will tell them that just because the events of the story didn’t happen, the Jews have made the larger truths come alive every time we fight for freedom and justice. I will tell them that they are part of the Jewish people, a people no better than any other but, equally to any other, deserving of pride. And part of what is fun and meaningful about being Jewish is participating in our special rituals and practices. In telling the stories that are about and of our people, even if they are not about the actual events that happened to our people. And I will tell them that the first time they learned and sang the four questions, they made me a very proud mama!