*This post originally appeared as an article in Bari Mitzmann's Hakol B'Seder Haggadah Companion
“Once upon a time…”
That old familiar phrase cues our minds to tune in for a story. We are more likely to pay attention to it than to something like:
“It says in this week’s parsha…”
Do you know why that is? Do you know why I’m asking questions?
It’s because there are certain forms of language that speak to us more naturally than others. Would you rather hear a story or a lecture?
Most of us will opt for the story; even a rerun. Even the more intellectually inclined are still more accessible through personal narrative than through dry facts. (See? Wasn’t that a boring sentence?) Stories literally affect our brains in more animated ways than data. They elicit emotional responses and are naturally more memorable. They can move us to laughter, tears, or meaningful action. They spark feeling. And perhaps more than anything else, we are wired to feel.
That’s why narrative therapy can be so powerful.
Narrative therapy is an approach to healing based on the notion that each of us is simply living out a unique biography in real time. That when we take a mental step back, and view our life stories from the perspective of “aspiring author,” we claim the “authority” (see the word “author” in there?) to dictate more of how it goes. We become self-“authorized,” by the construct of words and connotation, to narrate, edit, and direct a more empowered narrative.
When someone is deeply and immediately traumatized, there is a natural avoidance, a verbal paralysis that can take over, to protect ourselves from re-experiencing the pain. One of the clear signs of healing, is regaining the ability to “talk about it.” Survivors come forward to “tell their stories” and speak their truth. This gives them back a sense of autonomy, shrinks the bogeyman into a paragraph with a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t need to be pervasive. “If you can name it, you can tame it.” (Dr. Dan Siegel) In most approaches to treating trauma, there is some degree of verbal re-empowerment. Silence is the petri dish in which helplessness grows. Language is the gym where resilience and personal transformation can take place.
Maggid is more than just a chapter in the Haggadah pamphlet. Recounting our story of slavery, oppression, abuse, and salvation is a sort of “hero’s journey.” It’s the inspiring, formulaic “Ted Talk” of Jewish History:
“I went through something horrific. I thought I would never get out. It was awful. But I survived. Then a miracle happened. Now, I’m no longer a victim but a victor- I’m here and look how far I’ve come. I’ll never forget it- I use it to continuously uplift myself, and want to share it to uplift others.”
Four l’shonos/ languages of storying: L’haggid, L’sapper, L’omar, L’daber…
Our Rabbis teach that Biblical Hebrew is filled with mysticism and double entendres. For example: The word for “word” in Hebrew, davar, also means physical object, pestilence, and leader. This is because words are so much more than sounds or letters. There is real energy potential in them, they are creative, destructive, and directive. Words are how we express and define ourselves. They’re the currency we use to self-actualize.
Another example of this is the word for “to tell”: l’hagid, as in Haggadah. The commentaries point out that this is etymologically related to the word for sinews. Sinews are strong body tissue that connect muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons to one another. Haggadah, telling intentional stories, is a way of making strong, visceral, meaningful, connections between the parts of ourselves and with others. It connects the dots, mobilizes and unites us physiologically and metaphorically. There is a somatic reaction we have to recounting our experiences. We make meaning out of the sequences and themes we observe, and that propels us to grow.
Still another word for talk is “amar” which means both speak and designate; language has the power to rename and retitle our identities. Sicha- conversation, is the same as foliage, intimating that we grow and blossom through our dialogue and interpersonal discourse.
One more word: l’sapper- as in “sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim.” This is the actual word for story. It also means to count. Four questions, ten plagues, five steps to freedom. When we enumerate, quantify, and list what happens, we can engage with reality as scholarly observers, extrapolate lessons, and evolve going forward. Good stories have suspense, question marks, openings for input. This is why the Haggadah is full of question and commentary. Good stories provoke critical thinking.
When bad things happen to good nations: kur habarzel
One of the most influential authors of the last couple of years was Dr. Edith Eger. She made global headlines when at the age of 88 decided to break over half a century of silence, and finally share her story of surviving the Holocaust. After emigrating to the US as a traumatized teenager, she went on to become a brilliant and accomplished professional and matriarch. Perhaps part of what makes her books and lectures so compelling is that she is modeling a skill that we all essentially want: the capacity to transform suffering into transcendence. To rewrite our pain stories to include meaning, relevance and purpose.
That’s what the Egyptian slavery and redemption story is designed to do. Yes, we were duped, victimized, tortured, and oppressed. There was suffering, so much bitter suffering. But there was also faith, resilience, hope, and miraculous salvation. This is the origin story of the Jewish nation.
Mitzrayim is called the kur habarzel, the iron pot. Mitzrayim literally means troubles, constraints, pain. We don’t seek or glorify suffering, but a certain amount of it is in intrinsic to the experience of being human. It can be used to help us grow, challenge ourselves, evolve, and improve. How we perceive and narrate our stories can make the difference between being consumed with the trauma, versus proactive healing- regaining strength and wisdom by telling and retelling the story that casts us as heroically. We do this elaborately on Pesach, but we actually recount the Exodus daily, to reinforce these cognitive skills.
Maggid, then, is the visceral, neurolinguistic reprogramming, recounting, harnessing the power of language and story to recreate and re-empower our national destiny and individual potential therein.
For more on narrative therapy, you could read THIS