For Rabbi Paysach Krohn, all roads to understanding the profound themes of the Passover story don’t necessarily run through ancient Egypt. Some run through Staten Island.
In his new Haggadah, “At the Maggid’s Seder: Stories and Insights of Grandeur and Redemption” (ArtScroll), the prolific author (and popular mohel) upends the traditional, commentary-laden seder text with a raft of stories and anecdotes that illuminate Passover’s message in indirect fashion.
There’s a story about a poor Jew in a shtetl asking for permission to drink four cups of milk instead of wine (in the Kiddush section), because he can’t afford the more-costly libation. There’s one about an Israeli soldier challenging the country’s chief rabbi about the truth of a particular Haggadah verse (“This year, we are slaves.”), questioning if citizens of an autonomous Jewish state are indeed enslaved. And another about a hostile DMV encounter, which he relates to the plague of frogs, a lesson that teaches about patience and understanding.
“The primary mitzvah of the seder is to relate the story of our Egyptian exodus,” Rabbi Krohn, who lives in Kew Gardens, writes in his Haggadah’s preface. “Stories create the strongest vehicle of connection.”
His story-centric approach comes, in part, from his relationship with the late Rabbi Sholom Schwadron, a Talmudic scholar, teacher and orator who earned the unofficial title of the “Maggid of Jerusalem”; he earned that moniker for the fiery, colorful, story-filled Friday night lectures he delivered for more than four decades at a shtiebel in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood. Rabbi Krohn has written nine previous “Maggid” books centered on the life and teachings of Rabbi Schwadron.
The Staten Island story — which illuminates the phrase “Blessed be the name of God,” from the Hallel section of the Haggadah — involves a teacher at a yeshiva there who, racing to an appointment, hit another car. The teacher offered to pay for the damage, but asked if he could do it in installments.
The other driver, a stranger, readily agreed. “Why did you trust me?” the rabbi asked when he made the final payment. The driver said she taught in the public school where the late Sheila Feinstein, wife of Rabbi Reuvein Feinstein, rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Staten Island, was principal. “When I realized that you were from her tribe,” the driver answered, “I knew without a doubt that I could trust you.”
For Rabbi Krohn, the story is a perfect reflection of the message of the verse. “Everyone is interested in a story,” though perhaps not rabbinical commentaries, the rabbi says about his approach; “I’m not merely a story teller, I use a story to bring out a message.”