When Passover begins at sundown March 27, Jews worldwide will sit down to the Seder, the ritual meal where the story of freedom from bondage in Egypt is retold in the Haggadah, a guidebook of blessings, prayers, history, questions, songs, and stories.
The Haggadah copy might be an illustrated beauty or a freebie found at grocery stores with a Maxwell House coffee ad — America's most popular edition. But the words are essentially the same and "every word is to be taken seriously," says Mark Gerson, author of The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life (St. Martin’s Essentials, out now). Gerson, a financier, philanthropist, and host of a podcast called The Rabbi’s Husband, explains in lavish detail in his book how the Haggadah contains "the greatest hits of Jewish wisdom."
He talked with PW about freedom, compassion, and personal transformation he finds in the Haggadah.
(The conversation has been edited for length and clarity)
The Telling has 59 chapters, albeit very short ones? Who is your audience for this deep dive?
This book is for anyone seeking a happier, more fulfilling, and better life. It’s really a book about all of us, Jewish and non-Jewish, and it is timeless. We are all living in this story. Its lessons are accessible, actionable, and transformative. What do we tell ourselves? What do we tell our children? What does it mean to be free? But I don’t expect people to sit down and read 300 pages. I wanted people to be able to read a few chapters and have a richer experience at their Seder and maybe read a few more chapters next year.
“Telling” – the English translation of the word "Haggadah" — is centered on the Exodus story of Jews finding freedom. So why is the celebration called the “Seder,” which means “order?”
There is no freedom without order. Everyone knows Moses told the pharaoh “Let my people go” but they overlook the rest of the sentence: “Let my people go so that they might serve me.” Freedom, well exercised, has a purpose. It’s to create a dwelling place on earth for God, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Freedom in the Jewish imagination has a purpose. It’s not just following your bliss. Deuteronomy says, “This book is for your benefit.”
Why is there a miracle-counting contest among three great rabbis included in the Haggadah?
The contest is something profound because the winner is the rabbi who counts the highest. It’s a literary mechanism to teach us to realize happier, more meaningful lives. The more miracles we can identify in our own lives, the better. If you wake up in the morning and your first thought is, “I have a new day! There is so much I can do, so much I can contribute,” you’ll find yourself bathed in miracles and your gratitude will transform you.
There's a point in the Haggadah where Seder participants are instructed to invite all who are hungry or needy to come and eat. Why does this invitation to strangers, coming while the Seder is underway, resonate with you?
This is a genuine invitation although it’s puzzling since it is issued while everyone is already at the table. What it means is to bring your whole self – all the faces of who you are. The word in Hebrew for “face” is plural. It has no singular form. No one has just one face. This isn’t the tough guy face or the know-it-all face you show the world. You are the hungry one, the needy one. It’s your broken self who is invited. God loves the broken-hearted.
The Haggadah concludes with a wish in the text: “Next year in Jerusalem” (metaphorically if not literally). But your opening author’s note in The Telling concludes, “Next year in Graceland.” What’s that about?
It’s an inside joke with my family. We love Graceland. We’ve been twice and I’m always ready to go back. Also, it’s common knowledge that Elvis was Jewish, from his mother Gladys, who was Jewish. It’s the matrilineal line. We’re all living the Exodus story.