by Rabbi Len Levin

The taste of the maror and haroset are imprinted in my sensory memory, along with the smell of the wine and the eggs. The crunchy feel of the first seder matzah between my tongue and teeth. The sound of the familiar melodies and the voices of my family. The sights–the candles, the tablecloth, the special dishes, the Seder plate, the family gathered around the table. All the senses are engaged. Every layer of my personality– subconscious, conscious, and superconscious–focused on the ritual commemoration of our formative historical experience.

This is how Jewish group memory gets transmitted from generation to generation. This is why we have survived for over three thousand years and have kept up the journey several times around the world and back to our homeland in living memory.

In every generation each person should see himself or herself as if he or she went out from Egypt.

Narrative is key. Who we are as individuals is captured in the story we tell ourselves and others about our lives–where we were born, into what family, what life choices we made, what we have accomplished. The same is true of ourselves as a people, as collective Jewry. 

The amazing thing is that we have taken on this group narrative, this group memory, as our own, and have thus been able to keep the group and its narrative alive for millennia.

The sources of the narrative are centered on our religious calendar observances–Sabbaths and holidays–but are not limited to them. Folklore is also a potent source. In the past generations, feminist historians have broadened our sense of the corpus of Jewish memory to include traditions passed down from mothers to daughters and crystallized in women’s prayers and memoirs. Writers like Anita Diamant in The Red Tenthave helped fill in important gaps by imagining what the narratives of the patriarchal age would be like as told by the matriarchs, and similarly resurrecting other parts of Jewish women’s collective experience.

There is a difference between objective, scholarly history and personal history. I can learn about the histories of the French, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Australians out of curiosity and even identify in part with some of the characters temporarily while I am immersed in the material. But when I study about the Jewish past, I identify wholly and permanently with it. It is mine. It is me. It is us.

The historical consciousness is also the basis of our Jewish moral consciousness. We identify with the oppressed because we were slaves and strangers in the land of Egypt. We are personally involved in the task of Jewish national redemption in our own time because it is part of the ongoing Jewish narrative that began with our Exodus from Egypt.

Man ist was er isst–we are what we eat. We eat the bread of affliction and drink the wine of redemption. It enters into us and becomes us. That is what makes us Jewish and keeps us Jewish.

Happy Pesah to all. And let us renew again this year the deepening of our Jewish consciousness by reenacting our history.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.