Telling and Being Told By the Story

In each and every generation a person is obliged to see himself as if he has gone out from Egypt.  (Passover Haggadah)

Each person must bring an as if to the Pesah Seder.  The as if that I bring allows me to enter a story that enters me; I see myself through my own eyes and through the ancient images.  I am my story’s keeper and it is mine.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai tells himself into the ancient story this way:

And what is the continuum of my life.  I am like one who left Egypt
with the Reed Sea split in two and I passing through on dry ground
with two walls of water on my right and on my left.
Behind me Pharaoh’s force and his chariots and before me the wilderness
and perhaps the promised land.  This is the continuum of my life.

(Click here for the Haggadah story and Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

The poet is in the middle of an ancient story that is also in the middle of him.  Side to side, he is in the middle of walls of water.  Back to front, he is between pursuit and (perhaps) promise.  Even his story within the ancient story is in the middle, poetically set between the continuum of my life and the continuum of my lifeMeshekh, the word for continuum, also means continuity, duration; meshekh is the pull of something.  B’meshekh means, in the middle.  From the perspective of the middle, both the beginning and the end are beyond the horizon.

The ancient story has a certain ending—Israel reaches its promised land.  Yet, the poet brings his perhaps, his uncertainty, to the relived story, enriching the ancient tale with live emotion.  Perhaps, brings personal doubt and present uncertainty to an ancient tale.  I imagine that I and my ancestors shared not only a story, put a perhaps.  Together, joined across generations, we have always wondered about how the story that we tell will live itself from the past to the future.

In each and every generation we wonder anew how the story that we carry will help to carry us.

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6 Responses to Telling and Being Told By the Story

  1. Lucy Dinner says:

    Eli Wiesel teaches that the key to Jewish longevity through the centuries is the culture of preserving memory. Souls of the departed live on in the memory of those who recall them. Our heritage endures as we carry sacred memory generation to generation.

  2. Susan Breitzer says:

    Excellent and spot on. My thought is that there are many ways that we “live the story,” large and small. And for better or worse, some of us do not need to look far to see how the story becomes our story, as we think about the “Egypt” that we’ve sometimes only recently left, the pursuers who haven’t yet given up the chase, and the uncertainty regarding the destination, whether it involves a matter of “if” or merely “when” and “how.” Yet it is possible to feel all this, but never doubt the rightness and necessity of having gotten ourselves out.

  3. Dan Alexander says:

    Just before reading Rabbi Sager’s “Telling and Being Told,” I happened to have read the fifth Pesach homily of Sfat Emet (p. 394-5 in Art Green’s translation). In it, Sfat Emet asserts a bridge consisting of faith that connects the historically fixed exodus event of the past and the present relived experience of it. The uncertainty of the “perhaps” of Amichai’s poem strikes me as reflective of a spiritual state prior to that faith. But maybe it is the other way around, that faith precedes “perhaps.”

  4. As I read this, I find myself mentally wandering, imagining a bit, considering the locational aspect; asking myself if being “in the middle” is not a constant. In other words, do we never leave this place, but are always in it? As we move towards one shore or the other, in this metaphor, do the endpoints of pursuit and promise recede or transform or change to other endpoints – so we never actually reach them? Do the walls on either side move with us so they remain equidistant at all times? Are we enveloped in a bubble of ‘now’ that separates us from all other times/places? Amichai seems to see us as on a journey – his continuum – that has a beginning and an end point. I am not so sure of that for myself. We do begin at birth, and we do die – yes, but that is not quite what I think is meant.
    Just a thought.
    Thanks for posting. A good reminder of this poem and the opportunity to learn with you.

  5. Ed Friedman says:

    Someone, I’m not sure now exactly who, suggested that one might expect following the celebration of the Exodus at Pesach and the Sinai event at Shavuot, that we celebrate the arrival in Canaan or the conquest of Canaan at Sukkot, but instead we celebrate the journey (the continuum? meshekh?). We never fully arrive until the end of life – if then. We all continue on the journey and continue to tell the story of that journey, our ancestors’ story and ours.

  6. Steven Tulsky says:

    Lovely, but a bit daunting–enslavement behind us, walls of water on either side, and barren desert ahead of us with only the possibility of a Promised Land beyond–with alternatives like those, what else is there to do but head out across the hot sand? Would we have made the trip if any less-bad alternatives existed? Does courage only arise when there is no other acceptable way out?

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