Festival of Failures: A Fifth Question for this Year’s Seder

The art of storytelling demands a captivating structure. One time-tested method introduces a character worth following, only to have him or her fall into despair. Committed to the well-being of the character, the reader journeys with the story’s central figure from failure to success.

The Passover story, as told in the Haggadah, follows a structure along these lines. While the Talmud debates precisely where the story should begin, all agree it opens with some form of tragedy. According to one opinion, it starts with the enslavement of the Jewish ancestors at the hands of the Egyptians and continues through to their freedom. According to a second opinion, the story starts earlier, from the days of Avraham. Those in his time practiced the pagan culture of their day, unaware of G-d’s existence. In this second version, the Jewish ancestor’s roots are traced from their idolatrous origins to their acceptance of monotheism at Mount Sinai.


The Talmud leaves this debate unresolved. As a result, today’s Haggadah reflects both positions, two disappointing beginnings to the same story in essence.



Why Include the Bad?


Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the modern State of Israel, wondered if this is productive. Is it necessary on a festive night of celebration to enumerate the meager beginnings of generations past?  Is the very narrative not undermined by spotlighting how lowly the Jewish ancestors once were?


The purpose of the Haggadah’s lowly start, suggests Rav Kook, is much more than dramatic storytelling. Failures serve to shape one’s identity and push them to become something they would not have been without it. While one feels accomplished and confident in the face of success, in failure as well a great deal is achieved.


The pagans in Avraham’s time may not have served G-d, but they nurtured an imaginative spirit. Those enslaved in Egypt may have lacked freedom, but they gained strength and determination. The Haggadah refuses to speak of just success because doing so would lessen the understanding of how the Jewish people have been shaped.



Bringing the Haggadah’s Lesson into Our Lives


All too often, we think of illness and disabilities as hurdles to overcome or periods of our life to brush under the rug. Yet, many who have gone through an episode of illness or currently carry it with them recognize they have no reason to brush the experience under the rug. The challenges of illness shape character, resiliency and courage.


If depression has kept you indoors in the past, try to appreciate the energy you gained to experience the world even more. If you’ve shared a truth about your private struggle with people you love, you may have experienced the vulnerability it takes to build true, loving relationships.


It may not seem socially acceptable to talk about your personal setbacks. There may be a chapter in your life that most people know nothing about. However, that chapter is as much a part of your success and who you are as the happy moments.


Rav Kook’s celebration of our flaws survives as a healthy reminder all year, but perhaps on the night of four questions, a fifth should be included. “What are the challenges that made you who you are today?” To celebrate Passover is to celebrate both successes and failures and to recognize that redemption only arrives when we learn to cherish both narratives equally.



How would you explain the negative narrative’s inclusion in the Haggadah? Please chime in below.

Rabbi Dovid Zirkind

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