What is real, and what is true?

One of my favorite parts of being the cantor at RSNS is getting to lead Shabbat with our Gan Shalom kids. They bring to the experience their whole selves –  their energy, innocence, wisdom, and silliness which I can only hope to aspire to. Recently, one of our precocious four year olds became focused on the “reality” of the puppets I use during shabbat. Most notably, Pickles the pink dinosaur, and Todah the Sloth (he is thankful for a day to take things slow!). Specifically, when a puppet came out, she would loudly exclaim, “That’s a puppet!” It wasn’t so much an accusal as an enthusiastic acknowledgment that she had discovered a deeper truth about the world. Sometimes, she would even address her epiphany directly to the puppet.

“Pickles! Did you know you’re a puppet??”

But when it came to Todah, our four year old had an existential crisis when faced with the implications of her discovery as it pertains to this lovable, cuddly sloth, who has hugged her and sang with her, made her laugh and also wonder at the world since she was two years old. One Shabbat, she steeled herself and bravely approached Todah, looked him straight in the eyes, and said, “Todah, did you know you’re a puppet?” But then she looked down as she contemplated for a moment, looked back at Todah, and said sheepishly, “But you’re also real.”

Instinctively, this beautiful child understood how to parse the challenge we modern Jews face: As the inheritors of a narratively-inspired tradition that relies on legends, parables and origin stories, how do we reconcile myth with truth?  Inevitably, this dilemma comes to the fore as we sit around our Passover seder tables, reenacting a sacred drama based on an imagined history. How do we embrace the paradox at the heart of the Exodus? Former longtime Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Rabbi Richard Hirsh gives us one answer in the opening pages of the Reconstructionist Haggadah, A Night of Questions:

“Is this story true? No, not if we mean an accurate account of events that happened more or less the way they are told. But our ancestors, those who wrote the Bible and those who wrote the Haggadah, did not write history; they wrote of their experience of Power greater than themselves that stood for freedom and against oppression…We do not tell the story of the Exodus because it is historically accurate; we tell the story because it is our story and we need to recover and uncover the eternal ideas that this story conveys. We take this story seriously but not literally. Pesach is the way the Jewish people celebrate, affirm, wrestle with, and work for freedom as our human destiny.”

This Passover, may we be granted the wisdom of our Gan Shalom student, who intuitively understood that something can be real even if it is not true. To approach the world in this way is to marry magic to insight, and to experience the liberation that comes from not choosing one over the other.

Cantor Eric Schulmiller