The Telling: How Judais­m’s Essen­tial Book Reveals the Mean­ing of Life

By – March 1, 2021

Most books on Passover fall into one of two cat­e­gories: they are either the­o­ret­i­cal exam­i­na­tions of the themes and ideas of the hol­i­day, or they are prac­ti­cal guides to spic­ing up one’s seder. It is a rare book that can be both, but Mark Gerson’s The Telling: How Judaism’s Essen­tial Book Can Change Your Life is able to walk that line. Through a series of well-writ­ten, ser­mon­ic vignettes, Ger­son delves into the major themes and mes­sages with­in the hag­gadah, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­duc­ing an invalu­able resource for all those who crave new mate­r­i­al for their fam­i­ly celebrations.

The Telling begins with a few chap­ters on the his­to­ry and prac­tices of Passover, but the bulk of the book fol­lows a famil­iar for­mat to all those who are stud­ied in the hermeneu­tics of the hol­i­day; it quotes a short pas­sage from the hag­gadah and then expands on its themes. In this way, the book’s for­mat mim­ics the haggadah’s own approach, where­in the rab­bis chose to tell the sto­ry of Passover through quot­ing bib­li­cal pas­sages and then adding their own com­men­tary. Each chap­ter is quite diverse and gives a plat­form for Ger­son to exam­ine many of the most foun­da­tion­al ideas in Judaism, such as: grat­i­tude, the mes­si­ah, our oblig­a­tion to the stranger, and par­ent­hood. For this rea­son, the book dou­bles in a way as a the­mat­ic intro­duc­tion to the major con­cepts and philoso­phies of Judaism. In writ­ing this book, Ger­son makes a sim­i­lar claim about the hag­gadah that oth­ers have made about the Torah, turn it, turn, for all is in it.” (Avot 5:21)

Though the book is cer­tain­ly learned — tak­ing its Jew­ish sources from every era, be it bib­li­cal, rab­binic, medieval, has­sidic, or mod­ern — it is not writ­ten for insid­ers. Ger­son does a thor­ough job of defin­ing terms and care­ful­ly intro­duc­ing sto­ries so as not to over­whelm the read­er. Addi­tion­al­ly, one walks away from read­ing the book with more than just an appre­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish wis­dom. Ger­son is able to link major themes in Judaism to recent insights in busi­ness, psy­chol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, and his­to­ry. The book also ref­er­ences many well known movies and books to fur­ther con­nect to its read­er and make its var­ied points. Because the book packs so much into every page, one leaves the expe­ri­ence of read­ing it with a desire to one day return. The book is a quick, but com­pelling read, with the option to go slow and take in all the infor­ma­tion Ger­son doles out.

In the end, the book comes to an abrupt stop. Much of the rea­son for this is because after giv­ing crit­i­cal back­ground infor­ma­tion about Passover, it focus­es entire­ly on the longest sec­tion of the seder — the mag­gid sec­tion, where the actu­al sto­ry is told. When the plagues end and the Jews march toward free­dom, Gerson’s job is done. How­ev­er, we know that there is much more to the seder than this. We haven’t even had din­ner yet. Thus, the book calls out for a sequel. Ger­son is a tal­ent­ed sto­ry­teller and teacher and it’s clear there is much to learn from him.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

In his book The Telling, Mark Ger­son makes good on his claim that the hag­gadah is not a hol­i­day man­u­al but the Great­est Hits of Jew­ish Thought.” In short chap­ters of four or five pages each, Ger­son high­lights such top­ics as Music and Food,” The Great­est Prin­ci­ple of the Torah,” What Can we Learn from an Egg,” The Jew­ish Secret of Par­ent­ing,” What Should We Be Ask­ing: Iden­ti­fy Ene­mies — and Also Friends,” and The Unfin­ished: The Jew­ish Way of Life and Death.” Each chap­ter stands on its own and can be read alone, but brought togeth­er in Gerson’s book via the hag­gadah, this col­lec­tion of our Great­est Hits” is cause for celebration.