How to handle the elephants at the seder

Rabbi David FohrmanPhoto by Melissa Gerr
Rabbi David Fohrman
Photo by Melissa Gerr

It’s the Passover seder. It’s late and everyone is rushing through the Haggadah to get to the meal. Who actually gets to talk about the Exodus story itself?

Rabbi David Fohrman wrote The Exodus You Almost Passed Over to combat that familiar scenario.

“This [book] was an attempt to create an analysis of the actual biblical story of the Exodus, where you could read it and take your time, then come to the seder having done some study about what the Exodus means and what some of the elephants in the room are,” he recently told a Baltimore audience.

Those elephants include, “Why do we even call it Passover? Why not call it Independence Day, call it Freedom Day? It’s the whole birth of our people as a nation,” he said.

Fohrman wants his readers “to be floored by the depth of the Bible” and to plumb those depths first hand, not solely through the interpretations of biblical commentators.

Fohrman developed his methodology over years of learning and teaching in Baltimore, first as a student at Ner Israel Talmudical College and then as an instructor at the Johns Hopkins University. One of the book’s benefactors is Silver Spring resident Alan Broder, who also donated several of Fohrman’s books to the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville and the University of Maryland College Park.

There are two familiar ways to study the Bible, Fohrman said. One is through academics, which can lack spirituality and “tends to be silent as to questions of meaning.” The other is through sermonics, where an authority presents information that is pre-digested for the student.

“I’m trying to do something in between the two, to take serious literary tools and look [directly] at the text. The tools are serious and sophisticated, but they are also deceptively simple.”

Fohrman urges students to read a passage and ask, “Where have I heard these words before?” seeking out where the Bible repeats itself and links different narratives by using words, phrases and ideas that resonate.

“It’s basically the Torah’s way of saying, ‘If you want to understand A over here, you’ll see it over here in B,’” he said.

Another technique is “Which of these things is not like the others?” in which four things are mentioned a Bible story, yet only three of them seem connected.

Fohrman said his book enlists these tools and “is structured like a mystery novel that leads you through the text. It’s not like a textbook. It’s intended to draw people into the story and immerse them and, like any good novel, they can walk around and touch the world [like] they’re there,” but each person discovers their own personal takeaway.

Uncovering layers of personal meaning in a text allows it to become more relevant in surprising ways, he said.

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