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The book you need to read before Passover

The Haggadah is not just a Jewish book. It might be the ultimate Book of Life.

A Passover Seder plate with wine and matzo. Photo by Mikael Häggström/Creative Commons

(RNS) — No, I cannot believe that we are about to have our second Passover in the midst of a plague.

That being said: What are you planning on doing to make this year’s seder — inevitably, for most people, on Zoom — memorable? What can we do to make sure that the Passover Seder does not continue its drift into being a Jewish spring version of Thanksgiving?

Welcome to the Passover book of the year — “The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life,” by Mark Gerson. Full disclosure: Mark is a friend, the husband of my colleague Rabbi Erica Gerson. He is a very successful investor and philanthropist.

As “The Telling” will reveal, he is also one smart Jew. The best thing about that: He is a Jewish autodidact, and this book is a wonderful result of his personal and intellectual journey into the heart of the Haggadah — and therefore, to the heart of Passover itself.

My bookshelves are filled with books on the meaning of Passover and the Haggadah. Each one has become a treasured friend.

But this book, to coin a phrase, is different from other books. Mark does an amazing job of sharing insights into the text of the Haggadah. He digs deep, leaving no theological or historical stone unturned. He has insights from ancient and current sages, literary figures and scientists. It is a gold mine of insights.

Why shouldn’t he? After all:

It is deeply instructive that Pesach should be the moment when we consider the fact that multiple interpretations of the same thing can be right. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar writes, “Understanding something as having multiple meanings is one of the deepest expressions of freedom.”

An infinite God speaks to each of us. We, made in God’s image, in the words of Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan, contain multitudes. So does the Haggadah.

Mark and I chatted about his work.

“The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life” by Mark Gerson. Courtesy image

“The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life” by Mark Gerson. Courtesy image

 

How did you come to write this book?

I am addicted to exercise. I run for an hour every morning, and while I am on the treadmill, I study Torah — both through audio and video. I always gravitate towards commentary on the Torah portion of the week. I found myself associating pretty much everything I learned with a passage in the Haggadah. It didn’t matter; it could be about the covenant of salt in Leviticus, or the fact that Noah’s wife has no name. It all profoundly and directly resonated with something in the Haggadah. 

I figured something out. The Passover Haggadah is not only a guidebook for the Seder. It is “The Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought.” The Haggadah contains most, and quite possibly all, of the great questions of life — and it even answers them for us.

That’s pretty heavy stuff. I am wondering: What were your childhood Passover celebrations like?

I grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey. We were members of the large Reform congregation, B’nai Jeshurun. I have great affection for the synagogue and for its clergy. Personally speaking, for our family the Seder was the best time of the Jewish year, when family and friends would gather both nights for great and memorable evenings. 

One of the things that I love about your book is that you are not content with “typical” commentators. You really bring in thinkers from all sorts of disciplines.

Right. The Haggadah is the “Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought” that becomes our great guidebook for life, and many teachers enhanced my understanding of it. I went from rabbinic sources (modern and ancient), psychology (from the 18th century to the present), social science, social psychology, as well as literature, philosophy, art and science. In the process of writing the book, the more I realized just how fundamental, encompassing, interesting and simply exciting the Torah and the Haggadah are. 

What do you think of the trend to make the Haggadah into a political document, and the Seder into a political meal?

Stendhal said that politics in art is like a shot fired in an opera — it is both “vulgar” and “impossible to ignore.” That would also be true of politics in religion. We are created in the image of God — and not vice versa! That means that we cannot create God — and the text — in our image. Yes, we can, and should, derive moral and political principles from the Torah.

But, let us also acknowledge that Bible-loving people of goodwill can and will disagree on particular policy manifestations of those texts (with very few exceptions). Just as anyone can quote a verse to justify a political position, anyone can quote another verse to justify the opposite position. 

Two people can be equally devoted to the quintessential biblical command to, per the Psalmist, “rescue the weak and the needy,” and come to very different conclusions about what kinds of policies can realize that goal. The purpose of biblical verses is not to dictate how to vote on a particular piece of legislation. The Torah is a guidebook, not a policy manual or a political platform. 

What are your favorite haggadot?

I like the ArtScroll Haggadah and the Maxwell House Haggadah — and, most of all, I like the continuity of the haggadot. It is deeply special to be asking the same questions, telling the same stories and dreaming the same dreams as Jews have been doing for a hundred generations, and all over the world. The Haggadah is what has, literally and otherwise, kept us on the same page — and what a pleasure it will be to participate again later this month! 

OK — so, let’s say that you’re totally new to the Pesach thing. How do you start?

First, embrace it! Remember that Pesach is our New Year celebration — not Rosh Hashana, which is in the seventh month! It is our spring festival — and simply, the best holiday. 

Next, don’t worry about getting it all in. Remember: The Haggadah never really gets around to the Exodus itself. Remember that Moses dies before he gets into the Promised Land. Therefore, every great Jewish story remains unfinished. Don’t try to finish the Haggadah, or get through everything in it. You just cannot do it! The night is too short.

Instead, pick three or four passages to really investigate. Try to figure out how they can help you to live a happier, better and more meaningful life in the year to come in the most practical and immediately actionable way.

Reading this book reminds me of the Haggadah’s exhortation: “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”

For anyone who is hungry for fresh insights for this year’s Seder, this book keeps every promise that it could have possibly made.

For it turns out: The Haggadah is not just about a meal. It is not about Judaism.

It is about life itself.