Spring term teaching is over at Vancouver School of Theology — just in time for Passover!
I’ll miss the class I just finished teaching, Sacred Texts and Oral Traditions — a speedy introduction to sacred narrative in four traditions: Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Indigenous Canadian, with an emphasis on the role of oral story, performance, and creativity in all four traditions.
But I’ll keep it with me, as I prepare for Passover.
At one class meeting, Ray Aldred, our school’s Director of Indigenous Studies, an Alberta-born Cree, told us a story about the human life span:
After making land and sea and all kinds of animals, the Creator decides it’s time to fix up the details of time and space – like how long each creature will live.
The Creator approaches a pig, and asks: “How long would you like to live? Would you like to live 80 years?” And the pig says, “No, 80 years of being hairless and rolling around in the dirt would wear me down. I’d like to live 10 years.”
The Creator approaches a bear, and asks, “How long would you like to live? About 80 years maybe?” And the bear says, “No. 80 years of eating half the time and sleeping half the time is too monotonous. I’d like to live 10 years.”
This continues until the Creator has asked six more animals.
Finally, the Creator asks a human being, “How long would you like to live?” And the human says, “I’d like to live 80 years.” So, the Creator says, “You can live 80 years. For the first 10 years, you’ll roll around naked on the ground. For the next 10 years, you’ll eat and sleep.”
And so on, through the human life cycle, with each decade humorously represented by the life of a well-known animal.
When he was done telling the story, Ray said, “And now, you can retell the story.”
Here I am, retelling the story. Actually, I can’t remember which animals Ray named when he told the story, so I chose different animals. The story isn’t exactly the same. But I think I conveyed its key meanings: the predictable nature of the human life cycle, a kinship between humans and animals, a sense of life’s ironies, and an appreciation for our Creator’s sense of humour.
If I were to ask a group of Jews and Christians, “Who here can tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt?” almost every person would say, “I can!” Each person would tell it a bit differently, but each would express some of the story’s key meanings.
In the mystical book of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai gives his view of the essence of a Biblical story. Every Torah story wears garments over its body, which houses a soul. Events and characters are the story’s garments. Moral principles conveyed are its body. Subtle teachings about God are its soul. For Rabbi Shimon, soul is a story’s true essence.
When it comes to the Passover story, I think all three aspects — characters, principles, and spirituality — can be essential.
Vancouver social justice activist Laurel Dykstra thinks it’s essential to notice the characters – specifically, the women characters. Moses’ leadership is possible because his midwives Shifra and Pua, biological mother Yocheved, sister Miriam, adoptive mother Batya, and wife Zipporah save his life over and over again. Through them, Passover calls us to action — because acts of care and resistance happen at the grassroots level, not just in the courts of the elite.
The prophet Zechariah sees in the Exodus an essential political message: God manages history, directing it towards redemption. Long ago, God freed the slaves on hayom hazeh, this day. In the future, God will free humanity from war, religious violence, and colonial oppression bayom hahu – on that day.
Medieval Jewish philosopher and poet Yehuda HaLevi focuses on the spiritual experience of the liberated slaves. People who felt God’s awesome power described it to their children. Impassioned by the story’s energy, the children told their own children. And here we are, 120 generations later, so awed by God’s attention, that we still tell the story.
When you re-tell the Passover story this year, what key meanings will anchor your creativity? Amazing characters? Enduring moral and political teachings? Intimacy and gratitude towards God?
Choose with intention — because it’s your retelling that keeps the sacred narrative alive.