There must have been a really good evolutionary purpose to negative thinking. Back in hunting and gathering times, it probably made sense to look for trouble, even on beautiful, sunny days. You never knew when some predator would pop out on the savannah, ready to pounce and attack. I’m sure that kind of fear and worry used to be really beneficial to Homo Erectus… but the modern human might do well to move on.
Negativity catches us unawares, even when all is well. All winter long, we long for a sunny day, but by the second day of spring, we forget how much we wanted it and fill our minds with new concerns. Come July, we’ll be complaining about the heat. As our lives–and attention spans– move forward, we’re quick to look for the next problem, without stopping to reflect upon how good things actually are.
It’s true at a national and communal level, too. We can spend our time wringing our hands about the situation in Israel– and at times, we must, perhaps– but we forget that for 2000 years the ONLY thing we prayed for was to be returned to Zion. As the popular prayer goes, we may not be where we want to be, but let’s not forget: we are certainly not where we used to be.
The rabbis got this, intuitively, when they planned for our seder discussions. Putting “v’higadta l’vincha” (you shall tell your children) into practical terms, they told us exactly HOW we should be telling the story of our people on Passover night. “Matchil b’gnut u’msayem b’shevach.” We start with the bad and end with the good. Rav and Shmuel disagreed about what, exactly, the bad was; was it that we were slaves, or that we were idol worshippers? Either way, we are taught, we must tell both sides of the story, even in the simplest of terms. It once was bad, and now it’s good. Now let’s give thanks.
In an article about the origins of the seder, Professor David Golinkin shows that this was actually a Roman technique in creating a powerful storyline.
According to the Mishnah (10:4), the father at the Seder “begins with disgrace and concludes with praise”. This, too, was a Roman technique. Quintillian (30-100 C.E.) says: “[It is good in a eulogy to]… have ennobled a humble origin by the glory of his achievements…at times weakness may contribute largely to our admiration” (Stein, p. 37).
Starting with gnut— starting with the worst part of the story– helps us to appreciate how far we’ve come. As Quintillian knew, “weakness contributes to admiration,” and recognizing the difficult in our own histories will guarantee a sense of gratitude in the moment.
This Passover, let’s tell our story, bad to good. Transforming negativity into gratitude takes practice and work, and seder night can help us. Of course, our world still needs to be redeemed in so many ways. Enslavement is all around us, both literally and spiritually. But for a moment, let’s stop and give thanks. Where has our story shifted? Where have we found freedom and grace from something that was troubling us? When we go from Gnut to shevach, the blessings in our lives suddenly come into focus. We will have reason to lift our glasses and sing: Dayenu! Thank you, God, for the miracles that abound. Chag Sameach.