Article: As if each of us was brought out from Egypt

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 April 2009

This article was first published in The Jewish News, 2 April 2009

Pesach is one of the rare occasions that unites us.  Whatever our theology or relationship with Judaism, wherever we choose to pray, if at all, for one night we embrace our collective memory.  For one night, everyone who identifies themselves as belonging to Am Yisrael focuses on a defining moment in our people’s story.

The Seder retains significance across the religious spectrum because its central goal is so powerful.  Once a year each of us should re-experience the formative event of Jewish identity.  In the words of the Mishnah, “In every generation we are commanded to view ourselves as if each one of us was brought out from Egypt”.

Yet, this also presents a challenge.  It is not enough just to complete the ritual of Pesach.  To fulfil our obligation, the ritual must also be effective, and for the ritual of Pesach to be effective, we need it to reflect our lives.  For us truly to experience the coming out of Egypt, it has to be our coming out of Egypt.

We, like our ancestors, must bring our own values and experience into the Seder.  This is not to critique the Haggadah but to recognise that it has its origins in such a different place and time.  The language it uses cannot be expected perfectly to match a modern understanding of Jewish life.  The abundance of new Haggadot testifies to the need to approach the traditional text in new ways, with new explanations and readings, new art and stories, new moments of ritual, new questions as well as the old.  The easiest way to renew the experience is to find a new Haggadah to accompany you on the journey.

Some households also introduce new symbols to their Seder alongside the traditional.  At their best these innovations are deeply grounded in our tradition.  One such is the introduction of a cup of fresh water, the Cup of Miriam.  Miriam is associated with the availability of water in the wilderness.  Her presence at the Seder reminds us of the notion that it was through the merit of the women that we were redeemed from Egypt (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b).  Such creative symbolism is an authentic part of our tradition, reflecting the fluidity of symbolic interpretation that is found in rabbinic writing.

At the same time as we build on the ritual of the Seder to experience it afresh, we must also allow the values of the Exodus to inform how we see our world.  To make our own Seder a genuine coming out of Egypt is to identify the ideals of Exodus and to commit to put them into practice in our lives.  We can only celebrate our own freedom if we recognise that freedom is not a luxury that all enjoy.  To really re-live our own liberation is to empathise with those in the world who are not liberated.  There should be a moment at the Seder when we reflect on those who are not free, be they captured Israeli soldiers or those caught in the modern slave trade.

To see ourselves as though we personally left Egypt is also to know that with our freedom came a set of obligations.  We have a special concern for the stranger and for the vulnerable in society.  To make our Seder a genuine re-enactment is also to use it as an opportunity to help others.  If we are to say ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat’ with integrity, we need to show it in our actions, by donating our chametz to a homeless shelter, or by supporting charities that help to feed the hungry.

The enduring power of the Seder lies in our ability to connect with the experience of Exodus.  We left Egypt together – the young and the old, men and women, ‘a mixed multitude’.  At most of our Sedarim we will sit around a table also as a ‘mixed multitude’ – divided by generation, by sex, by politics, by belief and personal practice.  Yet together we will seek to connect with our shared memory.  So Pesach also reminds us that despite all that divides us, at least once a year we are united by something far greater.