Slavery. Oppression. A paranoid empire. Courageous disobedience. War. Deliverance. The invention of the sandwich.
Plenty of elements in the story of Pesach, as told in the Haggadah, jump out as being relevant beyond the bounds of its setting. For storytellers, finding that relevance is a tradition in itself.
Mystical interpreters have linked the story to a personal, reflective one.
Here, the life of a Hebrew in Egypt – at least, before the real trouble starts – stands in for a safe yet unfulfilling way of living; what follows is a spur to take a leap (okay, if not a leap, at least a walk) of faith, and go after one’s own promised land.
The materially-minded have looked outward, mapping the political struggles of their time onto the story.
In 1933, Polish illustrator Arthur Szyk drew Hitler as Pharaoh. When Cecil B. DeMille told the story in VistaVision in 1956’s The Ten Commandments, his prologue linked the Egyptian overlords to communist rulers of the day.
It may be hard to find a seder this year that won’t feature a hot take on Ukraine, and all to the good – tradition should be used to raise consciousness of justice, no?
Others have linked the story to pop culture in a valiant bid to make sure people do not just become really, really bored. Are your kids into Harry Potter? There’s a Haggadah for that!
Here’s one suggestion, though. Admirable as it is to try and make the Pesach story relatable, let’s also not lose the joy of nerding out with the classic text and its moments of irreducible quirkiness.
Take one footnote in an Orthodox-approved Haggadah that I grew up with; a sage explains that the Egyptians first started to turn against the Hebrews when they got annoyed by the way the Hebrews kept talking loudly in theatres.
Not a story of liberation exactly. And it may say more about the sage than anything else. But the image that it gives, of the culture, pleasures, and annoyances of daily life in a long-gone society – complete with a curmudgeonly Jew weighing in – makes the text feel eerily fresh.
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