When one of my children was in kindergarten, learning from the wonderful Sondra Kaminsky, I visited his class around this time of year to do some Torah study with the kids. I sat down on the floor with the class, took out a case of props with which to tell the story, and told the children that we were right in the middle of the amazing story of the exodus from Egypt. A young boy raised his hand to ask a simple, but ultimately profound question. “Why are we reading this story now, in January, if it isn’t Pesach?” One of the learnings that emerged from our ensuing discussion was the concept that the Torah is our story – that the story of the Jewish people is our story even today, and it is ours to return to, just like the favorite books which all of them eagerly shared that they read at home every night. (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse were particular favorites, if I remember correctly.) As anyone who has a young child, has had young child, or has been a young child, knows, children want the same books over and over and over. They seem to rejoice in the familiarity, the structure, while at the same time locating themselves in a new time and place at each reading.
The rabbis were wise when they instituted the cycle of Torah readings – we need to revisit the bedrock of our story over and over again. We are not the same people in January as we are in April. Not the same this year as we were ten years ago when we read the same words. Not the same people we will be the next time we encounter these words. For me, the opening chapters of Shmot have particular resonance this year, as we read about the new Pharaoh who arose, declaring in the parasha two weeks ago, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise, in the event of war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex. 1:10) I have taken both solace and strength from the actions of the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah, who resisted the unethical orders to kill all baby boys who were born.
In the summer of 2001, modern research caught up to the rabbis’ reasoning. At that time, Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, two researchers from Emory University, did a study on children’s resilience. Using a scale they developed called the “Do You Know” scale, they asked students twenty questions, such as: “Do you know where your parents grew up?” “Do you know what went on when you were being born?” “Do you know who in the family you act most like?” They discovered that higher scores on this scale were associated with a host of things we all hope for for our children, among them, higher levels of self-esteem and better chances for good outcomes when facing adversity.* A family culture – and dare I say a religious one – where stories are central is a family culture which gives our children tools for uncertain times, whether they be individual, local, or global. In our parasha, we hear for the first time the exhortion to re-enact the Exodus story throughout time, and to be diligent about telling the story to our children. God weaves the future retelling of the story into the very fabric of our process of liberation from slavery.
Now, I might be more explicit in the answer I would give to the 6 year old who asked the question with which I began. I would tell him that stories give us strength. We’ve been telling the same stories for thousands of years, and they help us get through hard times and joyful ones. The more our stories become a part of us, the more connected we are to ourselves, to each other, and to our history.
Rabbi Beth Naditch is teaches spiritual care at Hebrew SeniorLife and Hebrew College. She is a parent of three boys, at Schechter, Metrowest Jewish Day School, and Meridian Academy.
*A blog post on the study can be found here: