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Mark Gerson tells how Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life

Your book, The Telling, is based on the Haggadah. What does Haggadah mean and how is it connected to Passover and the Exodus story? 

Haggadah means, “telling”—and the Haggadah is the book that we use on Passover to fulfill our biblical commandment to “tell the story” of the Exodus to our children. We do so at the Passover Seder, which is directly modeled after the last meal in Egypt—as detailed in Exodus 12. In fact, when we do a Seder—and read from the Haggadah—we are fulfilling our obligation to “relive and retell the story of the Exodus.” We are literally, in other words, living the Bible.

How would Jesus and Jews of the first century have celebrated Passover? 

In very much the same way that we are doing this year in Norfolk and New York, in Tel Aviv and Casablanca. They would have relived and retold the story of the Exodus using the Haggadah—which would have been very similar to ours. In fact, it would have been so similar that any first century Jew could walk into my conventional Seder this year, know exactly what was going on and comfortably participate. Jesus would have read the same passages, considered the same questions and referenced the same texts that we are doing—for the same purpose: to enable the Bible to help us to live a happier, better and more meaningful life. The continuity is astonishing; this is almost certainly the oldest continuous religious ritual in the world.

Why do you believe the Haggadah reveals the meaning of life and why is it so timely for our world today?

Every great question of life is asked and answered in the Haggadah. The Haggadah is not a holiday manual or a dinner program—but the “Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought,” derived from throughout the Bible. Among the questions and challenges addressed in the Haggadah are: parenting, education, Israel, miracles, gratitude (and how to express it), the relationship between freedom and order, how to deal with a wayward child, how to avoid mistakes, how to consider time, how and when to celebrate—and hundreds of other important topics.

What is the most important takeaway that you want Christians to understand when they read this book?

There is a passage in the Haggadah, “For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation, they rise up against us to annihilate us.” That is true. Every generation will produce a powerful people with the intention and the will to destroy the Jews. It is Iran today—but in times past, we had to use white wine instead of red wine lest people believe the rumor that our wine was the blood of Christian children.

That passage refers to the Amalekites of Exodus—those who attacked us when we were hungry, thirsty and in mutiny...when we were weak. But it is immediately followed by a very different model of gentile—that of Jethro. Jethro was Moses's beloved father-in-law—who worshipped the same God in a different way, but with the deepest love, the most abiding care, and the greatest friendship. In fact, Moses based his entire system of government—which informs Western democracy to this day—upon the insights and advice of his gentile father-in-law.

So just as there are historical continuities (like the Seder), there are historical discontinuities. We Jews have not, in 6,000 years, had friends like we have today among Evangelical Christians—wise and beloved friends, Jethros, all throughout the country and the world. This Christian love of Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state—there has never been anything like what has developed well within the lifetime of everyone watching this today. And CBN—and the Robertson family—has been an extraordinarily important part of this relationship...and perhaps even a “but for” cause as in: But for the Robertson family, this friendship would not be nearly what it is today and probably would not be at all.

This friendship is of political and social importance—but, much more than that, it is of theological importance. How? I don't know—God told Moses that Moses could only know him by his back...so I certainly don't know. What I do know is that we have a shared sacred text, whose most important holiday is Passover and whose most important event is the Seder. The best participants at our Seders are usually our Christian guests, who offer the loving insight that can only come from someone for whom it is new. We would love to have you celebrate with us!

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