Of all the great seder experiences I have had, the year that sticks in my mind is 2006.
My parents put me and my wife Rebecca in charge of planning the seder, and we decided that, on the first night, after the opening rituals of karpas (dipping vegetables) and yachatz (breaking the middle matzah), we would set aside the Haggadah for a while and let my father simply tell the Exodus story to my nephews, 7 and 3 at the time, who were the only children present.
No one was better suited to fill this role. An avid storyteller, my dad attended local storytelling performances, hosted a group associated with the Southern Order of Storytellers in his home and traveled with my mom each year to the National Storytelling Festival in Johnson City, Tennessee.
I will never forget the moment when he set down his cup of grape juice, pushed his chair back from the table, and beckoned Isaiah and Simon to come sit on his lap. His maggid (story) began gently, quietly, building slowly toward the calamity of slavery and oppression.
While his attention was solely devoted to the two young boys on his knees, the rest of us were just as entranced by the tale he was weaving. Here was a master unfurling our people’s central narrative in carefully framed stages, phase by phase; I knew this story like the back of my hand, and yet it was like hearing it all again for the first time in his words.
Our sages directed that the seder story should proceed from disgrace to glory, and my family’s story fits that arc. That seder is full of emotional resonance for me because it wasn’t always like that.
I have early memories of my father telling bedtime stories, singing silly songs and taking me on weekend camping trips, but during my elementary school years, he sank deeper into addiction, emotionally and often physically absent. Then he went away altogether: As I was beginning eighth grade, he entered inpatient treatment in another state.
My dad loved Pesach most of all the holidays. No doubt some of that was our family coming together year after year at the Ramah Darom retreat that he helped launch. More than that, the Passover story resonated with his own journey from slavery to freedom, addiction to recovery. And most of all, Passover is at heart a storyteller’s holiday. It was home for him, in every way possible.
I treasure the stories my dad told me throughout the years, and especially during his 25 years in recovery: sad stories and funny ones, stories with a lesson and stories that maybe had no point at all. Family stories, Army stories, personal stories. They remain his greatest gift to me because each time I retell a story or draw on a lesson he taught, I can feel him right alongside me.
Rabbi Abe Friedman is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.