It's All in the Telling

A year has passed since the world started coming to terms with the magnitude of the Covid-19 calamity. The threat felt biblical to everyone, but perhaps especially to the nearly three-quarters of American Jews who participate in Passover Seders each year. “This year it feels like we have an 11th plague circling us,” Rabbi Elana Friedman, the chaplain of Jewish life at Duke University, told Daniel Burke, CNN’s religion editor. His April 9, 2020 headline read: “This Passover, the seders are virtual. The plague is real.”

True, the plague was, and still is, very real. But a good many Seders were not virtual. The Chabad movement, for example, sent a quarter of a million “Seder-to-go” kits to Jews across the country. Explained spokesman Motti Seligson: “A seder is not a screen-based experience. It’s interactive. You go through the steps of the seder and you smell and touch and feel. You talk to the people around the table. That’s something we have done for thousands of years. And we’re going to do that this year, too.” You smell, and touch, and feel; you talk to one another, sing (even out of tune), and remember. It’s all, as they say, in the telling.

Exactly a year later, a book has been released that explains all that, clearly and eloquently. Notwithstanding its ambitious title, The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life is anything but ostentatious. But as befits the context, it is different from every other book about Passover, Judaism, and yes, the meaning of life.

So too is its author unique. Mark Gerson is co-founder and chairman of United Hatzalah, a network of volunteer medics in Israel; co-founder of the African Mission Healthcare Foundation, which seeks to improve medical care in Africa and supports the work of Christian medical missionaries serving there; co-founder of the peer-to-peer business learning company the Gerson Lehrman Group; author of The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars and In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School that Works; and host of The Rabbi’s Husband with Mark Gerson, a popular webcast where he interviews a thinker with religious, political, or theological perspectives regarding a passage from the Torah. In his spare time, he hosts a weekly Bible study with Eagles’ Wings, an international Christian organization.

Yet this latest book is clearly closest to his heart. Starting with the Haggadah as a unifying focus, each argument appeals effortlessly to history, psychology, and theology, all the while keeping the reader mesmerized. The result is a truly beautiful book. Without a drop of schmaltz, profound without condescension, and casually funny—just enough to feel authentic—it resists the temptation to entertain and, by calling attention to itself, detract from its important subject. It is hardly surprising that The Telling is number one on Amazon’s Torah bestseller list.

The communal experience that gave rise to The Telling demonstrates what makes the Passover Seder so very special: the reading of the ancient text, the conversations, the experience of friends, and the shared passion for tradition.

It all started, the author tells us, when a friend invited him to explore the Haggadah together, over cigars. He agreed, and before long he was hooked. He fell in love with the text. What a window it provided into the meaning of Judaism! But in the process, Gerson also discovered his own ability to convey what he was learning and feeling to others—Jews of all religious backgrounds, as well as gentiles. Helped immeasurably by his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson, he organized weekly Torah sessions that brought together some of the most thoughtful Jewish scholars, businessmen, and political figures in the country. These include social entrepreneur Ken Mehlman, Ambassador Michael Oren, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Rabbi David Wolpe, and others no less distinguished. But like so many of us who dabble in words, Gerson confesses that “this book was in the works for most of my forty-seven years as the love of Pesach was instilled by my parents”—a love he is now passing on to his own four children.

The communal experience that gave rise to The Telling demonstrates what makes the Passover Seder so very special: the reading of the ancient text, the conversations, the experience of friends, and the shared passion for tradition. Why else would leftovers be forbidden on this night (no leftovers in a Jewish home?!), and with such finality: “If one household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are.” Implicitly “embedded in this seemingly obscure directive is the initial lesson in freedom that God provides for the Jews. The fundamental act of a free person, the Torah shows in Exodus 12:4, is to share.” By sharing, we become a community—at first small and intimate, like a Torah study group, then larger.

The community need not be homogeneous. On the contrary, the “neighbors” invited to the Seder, ostensibly to prevent leftovers, might or might not be poor or hungry. In any case, they wouldn’t be invited out of charity. Gerson points out that in fact “there is no Hebrew word for charity, and no Jewish concept of it. Instead, we have tzedakah, which means ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice.’ It is morally obligatory,” but not forced and is meant to benefit the community as a whole, givers as much as recipients.

The Christian author Linda Cox, noting that the English transliteration of the Hebrew word for giving—natan—reads the same in either direction, calls it “God’s palindrome,” meant to reify, as it were, the message that the giver and recipient are reciprocal. Naturally, we each have personal hierarchies, a fact recognized by Moses, who explains in Deuteronomy 15:11 that the first duty is to the family. Then comes one’s city and Land. But it doesn’t stop there. For in Judaism, particularism and universalism are not at all antithetical. Indeed, each presupposes the other. Unless we love those closest to us, we cannot love those who are distant. And since giving is its own reward, it is limited only by personal generosity and resources.

This explains why invitees to the Seder need not be Jews at all; didn’t Moses beg his beloved father-in-law, Yitro, to stay with him because “you have been as eyes for us”? One reason for extending hospitality to gentiles, explains Gerson, is that such “guests, particularly if encouraged, will inevitably participate with a spirit of newness that will enliven and enrich the Seder experience.” Far from shunning different perspectives, the Jews invite questioning and challenge. And “it is perfectly clear in the Torah that everyone is created in the image of God. . . . It is by forming strong and distinctive groups (of faith, of nation, of much else) that people can cultivate the values and characteristics that can make us, simultaneously, engaged and effective universalists,” writes Gerson.

But what about Jewish chosenness? No one understood that one better than Tevye the milkman, who famously asked God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” Talk about a mixed blessing. When God says He considers the Jews His first-born people, explains Gerson, it means that He has designated the Jews “to be God’s culture carriers, the people who transmit the message of ethical monotheism to the nations of the world.” It is not that He loves the Jews more than His other children, any more than a parent favors the eldest; rather, He expects them to carry on a special responsibility. In the words of the prophet Amos, “You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth: therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” That is also how American Puritans, notably the first Massachusetts governor John Winthrop, understood the responsibilities of being designated a light onto the nations, “a city on a hill.”

Gerson’s humanist vision includes not only Jews of various theological persuasions, but all descendants of Adam, for we are all created equal—and gloriously different—in God’s image. As evidenced in his ecumenical work, across continents and faiths, yet unequivocally rooted in his own tradition, Gerson is at once thoroughly Jewish and quintessentially American. He ends on this note: “Pesach, like everything else meaningfully Jewish, is never finished.” Like everything American. In fact, like everything human. L’chaim.