D’var Torah, Yom Rishon shel Pesach: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It

by Billy Dreskin

“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.’ And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead—in order that the Teaching of the Eternal may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand the Eternal freed you from Egypt. You shall keep this institution at its set time from year to year” (Exodus 13:8–10).

For twenty years, I had the great privilege of belonging to the tzedakah-based performance group, “Beged Kefet.” It began as a community-service project in Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school. One day, we sang at a miraculous little place called Yad LaKashish, “Lifeline for the Old.”1 It was there that we met a tiny whirlwind of a woman named Myriam Mendilow. Myriam was by no means a young woman when we first encountered her, but she had more energy than all five members of our group. And she channeled that energy into creating a series of sheltered workshops for old people (Myriam didn’t tolerate euphemisms and never let us call them “the elderly”). “If someone has only one finger they can use,” she told us, “I create a project for them to do with that one finger.” The workshops provided activity, companionship, a small paycheck, and, most important of all, a restoration of dignity for the old folks who were employed there.

Utterly mesmerized and enchanted by this remarkable woman, we returned to Yad LaKashish again and again, offering our music as a prayer of thanks that the world could count Myriam Mendilow among its residents. One time she said to us, “You must go back to America and tell our story.” We did that for two decades. We told the story because people needed to hear it. We told it because our world too easily dismisses the old. We told it because there’s a larger lesson being taught at Yad LaKashish: it’s that no human being should be cast aside regardless of how different the person may be from us. And we told it because no one could say no to Myriam Mendilow.

It’s so fascinating to me that this week’s Torah reading should be inserted into the Leviticus cycle. Amidst the minutiae of sacrifices and other mundane details of everyday life, there come the special days of Passover, as if to say, “Yes, life does get routinized, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t stay that way. Just as Shabbat arrives each week to release us for a bit from our everyday responsibilities, Passover comes to provide a change of pace as well.”

And why? To remind us how important it is that we tell our stories, and that we hear the message they have for us. On Passover, we retell the Exodus to remind us of our people’s promise to bring into our daily lives the mission of redemption for all peoples.

Storytelling is so important. If we are in pain, stories can uplift us, helping us to keep our eyes filled with hope and on the possibility of better days ahead. If our lives are jubilant, listening to stories of others’ pain can give us vital perspective and teach us what we need to be doing.

Jason Gary Klein writes of the powerful connection the LBGT2 community has with Passover. “The Exodus is a foundational story of the Jewish people,” he explains, “with which LBGT people can empathize. It is a coming-out story, a story that begins with strangers in a strange land and continues through struggle and liberation.”3

There are so many in our world who need liberation. Some are literally imprisoned by totalitarian governments, others are limited by walls people force around them, while some of us are enclosed in prisons we construct for ourselves. However we end up in need of liberation, the struggle for release is critical. And those who have been where we may be now have stories that can help us keep faith with the vision of a better life and a better world.

Klein’s essay references Michael Walzer’s poignant writing in Exodus and Revolution:“Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land…There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”4

Myriam Mendilow taught Beged Kefet to become storytellers. We sang, to be sure. But we did so in order to open our listeners to the stories we had to tell. In our audiences’ busy lives, they had stopped for a moment to hear us sing. We used the time as best we could to share our telling of the universal stories of all men and women.

Passover strives to teach us to become storytellers, as well. Some stories need to be told again and again, and the story of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery imprints itself on the Jewish soul, creating the sense of commandedness that inspires us to work to secure equity and fairness for all.

One certainly doesn’t need Passover to speak of Egyptian slavery. We can share that story anytime. But life marches relentlessly onward and too often, we forget to do the things we want, or ought, to be doing.

When I lead a shivah service at someone’s home, I invite those gathered to share a memory or a story about the person who has died. No one needs me to give them permission to do this, but it seems as if this moment provides a special opportunity to do so and, for many, that opportunity would neither be noticed nor taken were it not for this ritual moment inviting them to do so.

When Passover concludes, we’ll resume eating leavened bread as our haggadahs are once again put back on their shelf. The holiday’s specialness will return a year from now, but we’ll carry its story and continue to draw upon it in all the months ahead.

Chag sameach! I hope this Passover is an enjoyable and meaningful one.

  1. http://www.lifeline.org.il/
  2. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender
  3. Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, editors, Torah Queeries (New York: University Press, 2009), p. 86
  4. Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985),  p.149

Rabbi Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.

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