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by Meir Sendor
As we come to the conclusion of the Maggid section of the Haggadah on Seder night, in which we have been telling and interpreting and improvising on the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt from many perspectives, we find this passage:
In each and every generation a person is obligated to see themself as if they came forth from Egypt, as it says “and you shall tell you child on that day saying ‘because of this that HaShem did for me in my coming out from Egypt (Ex. 13:8).” Not only our forefathers did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but also us did He redeem with them, as it says “and He brought us out from there in order to bring us to give us the Land that He swore to our forefathers (Dt. 6:23).
This teaching, based on the Mishnah Pesachim 116b, expresses the essence of the mitzvah of the Seder night to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It calls us, not only to tell the story, not only to learn the story in depth, not only to understand the story from a variety of approaches, but to experience it ourselves. This is not just the vicarious experience of the imagination, like listening to a good storyteller or watching a movie. This is a real experience that transforms our sense of reality and our place in it.
Maimonides paraphrases this teaching in his analysis of the halakhot of Pesach, adding emphasis to the aspect of personal experience:
In each and every generation a person is obligated to show himself as if he, himself, came forth now from the slavery of Egypt. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah, 7:6)
Maimonides is teaching us that we fulfill the mitzvah of narrating the Pesach story by putting ourselves into the story personally, in real time. It’s not just play acting. He is encouraging us to realize the reality of the Pesach narrative for our lives right now.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, ztz”l, distinguishes between this teaching at the end of the Maggid section and the statement at the beginning of the Maggid section of the Haggadah that “if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not brought our forefathers out of Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would be enslaved to Paro in Egypt.” This statement means that the going out of Egypt is not just a story about the past, it impacts us now. As a consequence of that past redemption, we are not slaves of Paro today. It’s an abstract, analytical appreciation that that past event changed the course of our history. The Rav notes, though, that “this doesn’t say that a person should see themself as if they, themselves, came out of Egypt.” The passage at the end of Maggid calls us to experience the redemption of the Exodus ourselves, in our own lives, here and now.
So what’s the experience? Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur addressed this question at several points in his career, and his understanding seems to have evolved. Early on, he suggests that:
In every generation there is an Exodus from Egypt according to the issues of the generation… And according to the faith of a person that it is as if he is leaving Egypt, there is revealed to him this experience and he feels something of the Exodus from Egypt in the present, and each person can leave his own narrow place (Sefat Emet, 5631).
This is a subjective approach in which we reframe the problem of subjugation in terms of contemporary issues, and feel a redemption process at work in our lives helping to release us from these issues. This approach remains popular today in discussions around the Seder table in many communities, as people identify areas in their lives or their culture that are restrictive or oppressive and ways in which they have been able, or might be able, to free themselves.
A few years later the Gerer Rebbe offers a different, more objective and transformative approach:
By faith in seeing oneself as if one is leaving Egypt, according to the narrative, and the clarification by which one clarifies the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt, a person merits to arouse the miracle and establish the redemption even now. Therefore, we are obligated to “remember the Exodus from Egypt all the days [of our lives],” for by virtue of this we arouse the redemption and by virtue of this there will be the Redemption. And this is what [the Rabbis say,] that it “brings to the days of the Mashiach.” (Sefat Emet, 5637)
Here the Gerer Rebbe is no longer tailoring the experience of redemption to the relative measure of our personal lives, to retro-fit a sense of redemption into our generational issues. The experience reaches deeper, to access the real process of divine redemption that beats at the heart of human history. When we really see ourselves as coming out of Egypt now, we realize that each of us is propelled in the present by the full, dynamic destiny of our people. All Jewish time, all human time is packed into our present moment. The divine power that moved the Exodus, and all the ups and downs and ups of our history at every point, is an eternal power and it moves us now. We weren’t just impacted by that wave, we don’t just ride that wave, we are the wave. Rather than changing, and mostly diluting, the concept of redemption to fit into our present cultural terms, we work to change the present to realize real redemption. It’s an actual awareness of our divinely directed human destiny right now, in real time.
In our family, when any of us was faced with a daunting task and were hesitating and vacillating and calculating, my father, alav ha-Shalom, would say: “just do it.” Long before Nike. On Seder night, in all Jewish homes around the planet Earth, we can move from telling the story of the going-out of Egypt to doing it, and we can really open our doors to Elijah the prophet for the real coming of the Mashiach. Speedily and in our days.