Storytelling For The Ages – Hagaddah


Tell me a story”. Children ask it from their parents, students ask it from their teachers, grown-ups ask it from the bookstore or storyteller. Who doesn’t love a good story, told by a master storyteller.

The art of telling a story isn’t to convey the information in the story, for that we have history books and academic lectures. All of which are pretty boring and have little influence on our lives. A good storyteller knows how to make the story come alive, he doesn’t necessarily get all the dates right or all the details exactly correct, contrary, he might skip out some details he deems uninteresting and make up some other details. A good storyteller knows how to use drama, dialogue, props, and different tools, to put the listeners into the mood of the story, and to make them feel as if it is actually happening then and there.

The foundational story of Judaism is the story of Pesach, which we retell every year in the Haggadah the Seder, Its transformational power, lies not in its detailed accuracy, in its lists of dates and names, but in the tools and techniques built into the Seder which help to create the atmosphere of the story, to recreate and reenact the story so that it comes alive right here and now. As the Haggada says, to see ourselves as if we are now leaving Egypt.

Chazal set up the directions to achieve it the best dramatic tradition. They said you should always create dialogue, begin with questions from the audience, Mah Nishtana. Not because the children really don’t know, they all heard the story, but to create the interest and suspense to set the stage for the story. Just as a good director knows how to set up suspense in a play so that the audience really feels the story is happening, to laugh when it is happy and to cry when it is sad. This is sometimes referred to “the suspension of disbelief”, where good drama makes the audience feel as if they are actually part of the story, as if it is actually happening, even if in their mind everyone knows it’s only a play.

In the same vein Chazal said you must tell the story with props. בשעה שמצה ומרור מונחים לפניך. You can’t just go and give over the information. You must demonstrate it, show and tell. Drink four cups of wine, lean back דרך חירות. Build suspense, we start with the low parts, מתחיל בגנות , and make the story better and better until the climax. In short, do everything so that you can make the story the most interesting and alive. As the Rambam’s version says clearly, חייב אדם להראות את עצמו כאילו יצא ממצרים, you must show yourself, play, as if you are leaving Mitzrayim now.

It is only with this understanding that we can understand what the Hagaddah says that Kal Hamarbe Lesaper Harei Zeh Meshubach. Without this it is impossible, how can one person’s story be longer than another person’s? Either it happened or it didn’t happen, and where would one find what to add to the story. As dramatic storytelling this is simple. Whoever elaborates more who imagines more details who can stretch out the story to make it more alive to make it more relevant to the audience, is doing the Mitzvah better. For the point isn’t to have the most accurate history, the point is to have the most alive history. And what better way to demonstrate this than by telling a story, מעשה ברבי אליעזר וכו’, to let us imagine how the sages had so much to say it took them all night. What did they tell at that seder in Bnei Brak? We don’t know, but we can imagine some of the Midrashim and stories of Chazal were first told there.