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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sippur Yetziat Mitzraim, Narrative Therapy and Amalek

As humans we are constantly creating narratives about ourselves and the world. At times those narratives can be limited or limiting; we only tell half of the story, minimizing or maximizing aspects, and sometimes never aware of significant dimensions of the narrative. Narrative therapists pay special attention to the stories we tell, and invite people  “to take a new look at their own lives and to find significance in events often neglected, to find sparkling actions that are often discounted, to find fascination in experiences previously overlooked, and to find solutions to problems and predicaments in landscapes often previously considered bereft.” 1

Thus, the story-telling on Passover night is not merely an act of remembrance; it is a creative redemptive force. It is through telling the story of our exile and redemption - delving into and exploring our history year-in and year-out -  that a more full, true, and pristine Vision emerges. The Sefat Emet (Pesach 5635) explains:

"It is stated in the Haggada that 'All those that tell the story at length are praiseworthy,' for story-telling [sippur] leads to knowledge [da'at], as the verse states 'and that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your grandson...  that you may know that I am the Lord.' Since the Exodus from Egypt is written in the Torah and the Torah was given to Israel, it has the potential to awaken the force of redemption, for the redemption moves from potential to actual through story-telling. This is similar to the relationship between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah through which Israel creates new understandings of Torah. This comes through the power of language, which reveals hidden reasons.

“The Tannaim [R. Yosi the Gallilean, R. Eliezer, and R. Akiva] mentioned in the Haggada accomplished this when they expounded that each plague consisted of four or five plagues and at the splitting of the sea two-hundred and fifty plagues. These plagues were hidden in the plagues [explicit in the narrative], and the Tannaim brought them from potential to actual. This is the meaning of  'All those that tell the story at length are praiseworthy,' that they increase and expand the miracles through recounting the Exodus.

“The final redemption will emerge when all of the hidden aspects of the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt will become clarified. The initial redemption included within it the future redemption. This is why the Sages stated that ‘All the days of my life’ comes to include the Messianic era, since through remembering and recounting the Exodus it will bring the Messianic era.”

However, there is an insidious danger in viewing our current narratives as incomplete, contingent, and malleable. It can lead to the destructive view that all narratives are relative, subjective, socially constructed, and ultimately meaningless. This outlook maintains that there is no such thing as Reality, Truth, and Objectivity; all narratives can be deconstructed and subverted. In fact, it was this perspective of Amalek that confronted Israel when they first left Egypt. The Sefat Emet continues:

“When Israel left Egypt it was intended that this would be the final rectification, with the revelation of God is One and His Name is One. However, the wicked Amalek confused Israel, as it states: '[Amalek] cooled you [the Children of Israel] on the way'. Therefore we must remember our hatred of Amalek for all time since they caused all future exile. Only through telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt every year will the ultimate rectification emerge and the name of Amalek erased little by little.”

Amalek, the primal cynics, injected doubt into the minds of Israel. The philosophy of Amalek expounds that all life just “happens” and is lacking any telos and purpose. All that is precious and sacred is targeted by Amalek’s cynicism. In a moment of weakness, Israel’s confrontation with Amalek led them to question the absoluteness of their redemption. It placed a question mark on their narrative and they were thus open to doubt if “God is in our midst or not” (Exodus 17:7).

Since then we have been struggling to piece together the complete story year after year, knowing that we cannot capture the full picture in our current state but that through asking the questions and being open to new answers we can slowly awaken to the full Vision of Redemption.

“Every time we ask a question, we're generating a possible version of a life” 2

“Why is this night different than all other nights?...Next year in Jerusalem!”

1 Retelling the Stories of Our Lives: Everyday Narrative Therapy to Draw Inspiration and Transform Experience, by David Denborough, p. x, quoting Michael White

 2 David Epston in,Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities, Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, p. 113

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