Finding Empathy in the Passover Story



March 30, 2023

Passover is the holiday when we all become storytellers.

At my seder table growing up, we took turns passing the storytelling baton around our large table filled with multiple generations of family and guests. We each read aloud from the Haggadah, doing our part to tell the greatest story of the Jewish tradition. It was a collaborative effort and, together, we inhabited the tale of our transition from being an enslaved people in Egypt to being a free people traveling toward the Promised Land.

More frequently than anything else in the Torah, we are commanded to remember that we were slaves in Egypt and we were led out to freedom. On Passover, we are commanded not only to hear this story, but to tell it as our own. “In every generation,” the text of the Haggadah says, “each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we, personally, went out from Egypt.” This is based on the passage in the Torah that says “You shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8)

The act of storytelling is more than just a fun exercise. Though I’m not sure the authors of the haggadah knew about neuroscience,  they did, in their wisdom,  build a tradition that leverages what researchers now know is true: storytelling affects our brains. It shapes who we are and how we behave in the world. Paul Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, writes about how our brains love stories.  “As social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.”

His research shows that when we tell a story, listen to a story, or watch a story unfold before our eyes, we begin to feel the characters’ emotions as our own. We understand them. By retelling the Passover story, we begin to understand Moses and Pharaoh. We understand the Hebrew slaves and the heroic midwives. We understand the Egyptians suffering under the plagues. We get it all.  And, Professor Zak suggests, “Stories can motivate us, like the characters in them, to look inside ourselves and make changes to become better people.”

Stories are the building blocks of empathy. So for those who may have the blessings and privilege of a rich and bountiful life today, the Passover story is a reminder that there is much suffering in the world and we are responsible for its repair. And for those who are themselves suffering, the Passover story of redemption offers some hope.

Whatever our circumstances, the Passover story pushes us to identify with the powerful and the powerless. The story, OUR story, pushes us to see that we are a people of perseverance, a people of miracles, and a people of purpose. And if we can see ourselves in the ancient Hebrews living in ancient Egypt, then surely we can see ourselves in the people we meet on our campuses and in our communities.

This Passover, may we be blessed to be immersed in the story in order to be changed by it.

Rabbi Jessica Lott is the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern Hillel. She has worked in the Hillel movement for over a decade, both on campus and at Hillel International. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two kids and she loves bike riding, baking, and doing crossword puzzles.