Maggid, Memory, and Monica Lewinsky
Monica Lewinsky recently reemerged in the public arena after a decade’s reclusive hiatus. Last summer she wrote an article for Vanity Fair, “Shame and Survival,” and last week she gave a TED talk, “The Price of Shame.” Her direct message is strong and important: that the time has more than come for us to bring an end to cyber-bullying and public shaming. But her indirect message is also poignant as we approach the seder and our commandment to retell our story.
Next week, Jews all over the world will sit around the seder table to celebrate Passover, and we will reach step number five in the haggadah, maggid, when we are commanded to recount our ancestors’ escape from slavery in Egypt as if it happened to us. Many years, maggid merely marks the halfway point to what my stomach considers the seder’s apex: the meal (even more specifically, my father’s homemade chicken soup). But really, as its shared root with haggadah reflects, maggid is what brings us together; retelling the story as a memory is what drives the seder.
The Torah four times commands us to tell the story of the exodus. The ancient rabbis, not taking for granted any text as superfluous, interpreted the repetition to mean that there must be four different ways to tell the story, because there are four kinds of children: the wise (Deuteronomy 6:20-23), the wicked (Exodus 12:26-27), the simple (Exodus 13:14), and those who do not even know how to ask (Exodus 13:8).
For years, the four children have served as the philosophical highlight of my seder experience. Every year I find myself understanding them differently, as well as myself through their lens. How in some ways I associate with one over another, how in other ways I feel I embody aspects of each, how I would like to believe I also progress from year to year, closer and closer to wise, at least where most important.
[pullquote align=left]I had no cause to revisit my memories of Monica Lewinsky before now. [/pullquote]But in more recent years, perhaps since becoming a parent, my focus has shifted increasingly from who I am as one (or more) of the children asking the questions to who I am as the parent tasked with supplying adequate, appropriate, and acceptable answers. And, as is the natural, beautiful way with so many Jewish traditions, such thinking has led me back to my personal commandment to tell the story.
So why are we commanded to tell the story, not just in different ways, but every year? The most popular answer seems to be à la George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is, we repeat so that we do not forget, so that we can guard against reoccurrence. Another important answer is its contribution to our identity as a people: our past makes us who we are, who we will always be, but it is up to us to determine how we choose to remember.
Those reasons are surely enough. But could there be even more?
I began to wonder whether I have evolved as the answerer, as the parent, as the reteller of our story, as I have as one or more of the four children. Perhaps another part of the answer is that we tell the story in different ways for our children, but we retell it again and again for ourselves.
[pullquote]At 36, I now realize that she was still just a girl. Now, I am repulsed by the inhumanity of shaming.[/pullquote]Ms. Lewinsky’s public “tak[ing] back of [her] narrative” has given me a rare opportunity to revisit a memory through an older and wiser lens. When the scandal broke, I was not even 20 years old, and somehow “That Woman” of 24 seemed so much older. Then, I had not yet made the many mistakes—or at least, being slightly more compassionate to myself, errors in judgment—still awaiting me as I worked out the physical, mental, and emotional growing pains on the journey to adulthood. Then, I found it easy to be persuaded by the vilifying media coverage.
At 36, I now realize that she was still just a girl, even more so two years earlier at 22, when the relationship underlying the scandal occurred. Now, I empathize with human error. Now, I am repulsed by the inhumanity of shaming.
I had no cause to revisit my memories of Monica Lewinsky before now. My life continued, unfazed by her scandal and uninjured by my own errors, which never amounted to insurmountable shame or catastrophic consequences. Meanwhile, for her those events are inescapable, her errors and shame almost deadly and with lasting professional and personal hardship.
[pullquote align=left]This year we may be able to understand the Passovers story in a way we did not — could not — last year or the years before.[/pullquote]It seems so obvious theoretically that we form memories based on our then-current context, which we might outgrow by the time we revisit them. However, in reality we hardly ever have reason to reexamine those memories, to unseat them from our earlier, more naïve, less experienced perspective and consider them from the new perspective of our later selves (who likely would not have captured the same events the same way). So as the memory remains sealed and unable to grow more complex with time, we ourselves are also impeded from growing in certain ways we otherwise might. Sometimes this manifests as a missed opportunity, such as my stale memories of Monica, the airing out of which enables me to exercise overdue compassion and empathy. Sometimes the effects are more debilitating, leading to damaged relationships and ruined lives, as we feel trapped in a past memorialized by someone we no longer are.
Every year we are different. We have lived more, accomplished more, survived more, gained more, lost more, learned more, loved more. This year, when we are commanded to retell the Passover story, we may be able to understand it in a way we did not—in a way we could not—last year or the years before. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his Haggadah, we retell the story “because each telling engraves the event more thoroughly in the memory, and because each year adds its own insights and interpretations.” Accordingly, by allowing ourselves to retell it from our new perspective, by “reenacting” it as Rabbi Sacks puts it, rather than merely reciting it anew, we may allow our understanding to grow and gain more dimensions as we do—as individuals and as a people defined by this story.
Our specific commandment to retell this story has the potential to bring more to our personal seder experience and our people’s collective memory of the Passover events. But if thinking about why we are commanded to retell this story can remind us once in a while to revisit the other stories of our lives, the commandment has even greater potential to improve the way we think—the way we live—outside the seder as well.
And perhaps it is through this very act of retelling the story every seder, in every new manifestation of self— turning the Torah over and over and growing old and worn over it, as Ben Bag Bag advises us in Pirkei Avot—and then using the next year to reexamine some of our other memories, that we eventually discover we have become the wise child after all.