"One begins with shame and concludes with glory" (Mishnah P'sachim 10:4).This mishnah describes the narrative arc of the Passover seder: from sorrow to praise, mourning to celebration, slavery to freedom. We sing at the seder table, Avadim hayinu, atah b'nei chorin, "We were slaves; now we are free people."
The stories of Joseph in Genesis seem to unfold according to this pattern. Abused by his brothers, sold into Egyptian slavery, and wrongfully imprisoned by his master, Joseph works his way up from the dungeon to Pharaoh's court. His meteoric rise prefigures the national redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, a band of slaves who ascend to their own land, monarchy, and temple.
As the Book of Genesis comes to a close, the Joseph story not only prefigures future deliverance, but also darkly foreshadows impending enslavement. At the height of his power, and with Pharaoh's blessing, Joseph sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the enslavement of his own people, generations later. As the years of famine take hold in Egypt, Joseph enacts an economic policy that will bear bitter fruit for the Israelites themselves.
First, he bankrupts the Egyptian people by selling them the surplus grain stockpiled in the royal storehouses during the years of plenty (Genesis 47:13-14). When the money runs out, he takes their livestock as payment (Genesis 47:15-17). Finally, with nothing left but their land and labor, the people make a fateful offer: "Buy us and our soil in exchange for food; we and our soil will be slaves to Pharaoh" (Genesis 47:19). Joseph obliges, taking possession of all the land for Pharaoh, leading the people into indentured servitude. Grateful, apparently, to avoid starvation, the people cry out to Joseph asking to be "serfs (avadim) to Pharaoh" (Genesis 47:25). Some translations use the word, "serfs" here, but the Hebrew avadim is heavier than "serfs"—it's the same as the word for "slaves" that describes the Israelites in the Book of Exodus and throughout the Passover Haggadah. The story's arc begins to descend again from freedom into the darkness of slavery, setting the stage for the miraculous redemption.
Rather than a linear ascent from slavery to freedom, our story oscillates between sorrow and glory. Like the moon, which waxes and wanes each month, the Jewish people experience diminution and renewal throughout the ups and downs of their history.1 Accepting the reality of these cycles—in part, by telling and retelling our stories in every generation—allows us to cultivate the virtues of resilience and gratitude. In moments of success, we are reminded not to take our prosperity for granted. In times of struggle, we keep faith that it, too, shall pass. Perhaps this awareness has something to do with the peculiar longevity of Jewish civilization.
Researchers have begun to establish a causal link between storytelling and thriving. In 2001, psychologists compared children's psychological health with their knowledge of their own family history. They measured this knowledge on a "Do You Know?" scale using questions like:
• Do you know where your grandparents met? Your parents?
• Do you know of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?
• Do you know what went on when you were being born?
The results surprised even the researchers. They found: "The more children knew about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The 'Do You Know?' scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children's emotional health and happiness."2 Two months after this study was conducted, the September 11 attacks occurred. The psychologists went back and studied how the same group of children responded to that trauma. The results were the same: "The ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress."3
To explain the connection between story and resilience, the psychologists coined the term "intergenerational self." It's a sense that you're part of something bigger, that your life is an episode in a larger narrative. Marshall Duke, one of the study's authors and a professor at Emory University, who also happens to be Jewish, compared this idea to a bubbemeise, Yiddish for "grandmother's tale." In his family, Duke recounts, the grandmother will say, " 'You're having trouble with math, kid? Let me tell you, your father had trouble with math. You don't want to practice piano? Boy, your aunt Laura didn't want to practice piano, either.' Whatever problem the child has, the grandmother has a story for it—even if it's made up!" 4
More than just entertain and amuse, these cross-generational stories serve a higher purpose. Family stories let children know that they're not alone, and that those who came before them celebrated triumphs and overcame struggles, just as they do. The researchers define three types of family narratives. The ascending narrative says, we came from nothing and now we've succeeded. The descending narrative says, we used to have it all and now we have nothing. Finally, "the most healthful narrative . . . called the oscillating family narrative,"5 says we've had ups and downs, and we've persevered, as a family. This third narrative is, indeed, the story of the Jewish people.
When we sit around the Passover seder table each year, we invite the next generation into the Jewish family story. As the Mishnah (P'sachim 10:5) teaches, "In each generation the individual is obligated to see himself as though he [himself] left Egypt, as it is written: 'And you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt' (Exodus 13:8)."
This is our story, we say to our children. This is your story: You are part of the unfolding narrative of the Jewish people, for better and for worse. Your ancestors sought answers to life's ultimate questions. They struggled and suffered, they thrived and rejoiced. Through it all, they strove to create a life of meaning and impact, to leave a legacy for us—for you. From them—from me—comes your inheritance: responsibility, to continue our story by becoming a storyteller yourself; resilience, to face life's challenges; and gratitude, to appreciate your blessings while being a blessing to the world.
This, and nothing less, is what it means to be a Jew.
1. See commentary on Exodus 12:1-12, Samson Raphael Hirsch, trans. and comm.,The Pentateuch, (New York: Judaica Press, 1997), pp. 248-254; S'fat Emet, Parashat HaChodesh 5632 2nd Ma'amar; S'fat Emet, Purim 5631 2nd Ma'amar; David L. Lieber, sr. ed., Etz Hayim Torah Commentary p. 380, note on Exodus 12:2
2. Bruce Feiler, The Secrets of Happy Families (New York: HarperCollins, 2013, p. 41
3. Ibid., Feiler. p. 41
4. Ibid., Feiler, p. 42
5. Ibid., Feiler, p. 41
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.