By Elie Kaunfer
Teshuvah is an opportunity to change one’s life story. But what does it mean to change that story? How much of what I do in the future is inextricably linked to my past self-understanding, and how much of it is a complete break with my old narrative? To what extent do our old stories stay with us, even when we have fundamentally changed?
These questions are discussed — albeit implicitly — in a talmudic argument de-liberated upon in the Passover Haggadah. While debating the meaning of a seemingly unnecessary word in a passage in Exodus, the rabbis arrive at two positions about when to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. One of the rabbis, Ben Zoma, claims that one must mention the story of the Exodus at night as well as in the day. But the majority opinion of the sages is that one must mention the story of Exodus in the world to come. This is the part of the debate we discuss during the seder.
But the debate continues, recorded in Tosefta Berakhot 1:10, cutting to the core of our experience of our past stories. Ben Zoma responds to the sages, saying: Is it possible that we mention the Exodus in the days of the Messiah? But we know it says (in Jeremiah 16:14-15): “There is a time coming — declared YHVH — when it shall no more be said: ‘As YHVH lives, who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt,’ but rather: ‘As YHVH lives, who brought out and led the off-spring of the House of Israel from the Northland…’”
Ben Zoma’s position now becomes clear. One must mention the story of the Exodus at night to the exclusion of mentioning it in the future redemptive time of the Messiah. Buttressing his opinion with a quote in Jeremiah, Ben Zoma points out that in the future, the story of the Exodus from Egypt will be supplanted. No longer will we call God: “the One who took us out from Egypt” but rather, “the One who took us out of the Northland.” In this conception, stories are discarded once they become overridden by later narratives. Leaving Egypt happened in a prior redemption, but in the future, says Ben Zoma, the more current redemption is the only story that matters.
Ben Zoma’s position — especially as it relates to teshuvah — is perhaps best captured by this statement from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “Repentance, ac-cording to the halakhic view, is an act of creation — self-creation. The severing of one’s psychic identity with one’s previous “I,” and the creation of a new “I,” possessor of a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals — this is the meaning of that repentance compound-ed of regret over the past and resolve for the future.” (Halakhic Man, p. 110)
But the sages take a different approach to this question. Rebutting Ben Zoma’s excellent proof-text from Jeremiah, they suggest that while the story of the Exodus from Egypt will change in relative importance — and how we tell the story will evolve — the story will never entirely fall away.
Our past stories — no matter how distant and no matter how removed from our current experience — always stay with us. Even after God redeems us again and brings us to the Messianic age, we will still be talking about the past redemption — albeit differently. Preserving our stories may make change less stark — and therefore more achievable. In this conception, teshuvah isn’t about a radical retelling; rather, it is simply the next chapter in an integrated storyline.
This is perhaps best summed up in a very short verse describing the genealogy of Abraham, and referencing his name change: “Avram is Avraham.” (I Chronicles 1:27) Avram is always wrapped up in Avraham. Indeed, the letters that make up Avram are all found within the name Avraham. The new person that Avram becomes still contains the old one. Or, in the view of the Talmud: “Avram is Avraham”; he maintained his righteousness from beginning to end. (B Megillah 11a) He may have fundamentally changed, but core parts of him remained.
Our stories must change in order for us to change. But we never let go of those past stories. They are always a part of us. We just tell them differently.
Elie Kaunfer, co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar (mechon-hadar.org), is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vi-brant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights). A frequent lecturer on prayer and building grassroots Jewish communities, Kaunfer is particularly interested in the siddur as a text to be interpreted.