What is a prophesy? A story about the future. And a self-fulfilling prophecy? By definition, it is a story that generates a future. This common wisdom about the self-fulfilling potential of articulated predictions, is especially apt on Passover, the holiday of “Telling”.
“Haggada”, the booklet we read during the Seder dinner, literally means “The Telling”. The instruction, clearly spelled out for us in the Torah, “...you shall tell to your child on that day (Passover)… (the story beginning with) I left Egypt” (Exodus 13: 8), teaches us that one of the core practices of the Passover seder is telling our story of origin. The Seder tradition is in essence an exercise in passing on “The Story” to our children.
Even though on Passover we tell a story about our past, yet, the way we approach the telling may indeed be self-fulfilling. As we know, a positive tone draws positive outcomes, and to the contrary a negative texture attracts and perpetuates negativity.
This is illustrated by the hidden meanings of two key Passover terms, Pesah פסח, Hebrew for Passover, and Pharaoh פרעה the name of our ancient oppressor. These Hebrew words, Pesah and Pharaoh respectively, include the phonetics and letter construct that translate as “mouth”, “Peh, פ or פה”.
The name of the festival (Pesah), when divided into its two syllables, Peh and Sah, takes on a whole new meaning. “Peh”, as we already know, means mouth and Sah means “conversation”. In other words, Pesah, a “speaking mouth”. In the context of commemorating our people’s sacred origins and cherished values, this means a mouth that speaks sacred words and meaningful speech. The term Pesah, then, joins the word “Haggada” in illustrating the centrality of storytelling on the Seder night.
The Hebrew word Pharaoh, on the other hand, when scrambled and divided into two syllables, spells the words Peh פה, mouth, and Rah רע, evil - evil mouth or evil speech.
We learn that speech, in both its positive and negative aspects, is central to the observance of Passover, as well as to how we live our lives. The former generates freedom, and the latter generates oppression and ultimately self-destruction, “The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the riders, Pharaoh’s entire army… not one of them remained” (Exodus 14: 28).
I am writing these reflections as the news-cycle continues to challenge. This morning a shooting in the Brooklyn subway system, preceded by a weekend of mass shootings around the country, in addition to the ongoing tragic war in Ukraine. A heavy cloud of escalating violence is overshadowing the holiday. The news can easily diminish our appetite for festivities or for telling stories about freedom gained, or a long journey to a promised land, a long time ago.
It is hard though to ignore the parallels between ancient and current events, a Russian Pharaoh insisting on oppressing and murdering freedom-loving Ukrainians, who are led by non other than a descendant of Moses. Our storytelling at this year’s Seder, whether in the form of reading from the Haggada held in our hands or spontaneous conversations around the Seder table, is bound to be colored by the stresses and weightiness of the news-cycle environment. Can we mitigate that? Can we consciously choose to tell stories that generate a path to a “promised land” of peace, justice, and tranquility, in addition to, if not instead of, bemoaning a complicated and distressing present?
At our Seder, can we share words that calm the fears, ease the pain and alleviate the worries? Can we Peh-Sah, converse from a place of positive vision, a place of sacred and generative consciousness? The wise author of the book of Proverbs says “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue” (Pro. 18: 21). Can we beat the Pharaoh, Peh-Rah, evil mouth, with a defiance of a higher order, weaving a prophecy, our own perhaps, a prophecy that is worthy of its fulfillment?
Yes, we can. Let us dream big about a “promised world”. As a result we will eventually pass-over these challenges as we Jews have done for over three millennia. We have been, and continue to be, the carriers, throughout time, of a vision for peace שלום.
In fact, we have lived “to tell the story”, or rather remain alive as a nation and culture because we stubbornly never ceased the telling. This is due to our intuitive knowledge, held deep down in our collective consciousness, that today’s intentional speech does become tomorrow’s better story.
Each Passover, as we ritually read and tell our story, we draw a bit closer to the fulfillment of a prophecy. Each Passover when we conclude the seder with the words, “next year in Jerusalem” we place another brick in the wall of the utopian “Holy City”, where, according to the prophet Isaiah, all peoples of the world will mingle in peace (Isaiah 56: 7). This is certainly a prophecy worth its fulfillment, let us continue to perpetuate its storyline.
Pesah Same’ah שמח, happy Passover,
Rabbi Reuben Modek