Introduction: The Challenge and the Way to Meet It
Day One, Rosh Chodesh Nissan
Just about at the end of our telling the story on Seder night, we find out that there has been an agenda to the evening we might have missed up until that point. After all the telling we’ve done, we quote Mishnah Pesachim 10;5, that in every generation we are to see ourselves as if we left Egypt. As Devarim 6;21-25 reports the story we are to tell our children when they ask about the commandments of Seder night, verse 23 has us saying “and us He took out of there,” which Rava in Pesachim 116b sees as an obligation.
It’s not enough to retell the events, to bring our children into the circle of those who know a long-ago story; when each of us says to our children (as Shmot 13;14 commands us) that it was for this service that God took me out of Egypt, we are supposed to mean that as close to literally as we can get.
The goal is to relive the events, to walk away from our Seder having rejuvenated our sense of the Exodus as a personal experience, not a piece of our history. A completely successful Seder night would bring its participants to the Hallel, the Psalms of praise recited both before and after the meal, and to the meal itself, as jubilant as those who physically experienced the Exodus itself.
That’s a tall order, and I cannot say that I know how to achieve it. I do know how to get closer and I hope and believe that if you join me, daily, for the next 23 days (through the last day of Pesach), you will feel that we have made good progress on this one narrow goal: having our Seder turn the past into the present, enable us to say, meaning it almost literally, “and us He took from there.”
Putting Ourselves Back in Egypt
I start with the recognition that for all that we talk as if we tell the story of leaving Egypt Seder night, we don’t do that much of it. We offer several concise versions, the longest of which is four verses, whose key terms we then explain at length.
We could have spent the night on the first chapters of Shmot, guided by the voluminous commentarial literature, which turns the Exodus from a cardboard cartoon into a textured drama, populated by relatable human beings. Except that that’s a lot to read, let alone discuss or analyze. It’s also my personal experience that the flow of the Seder doesn’t really allow for study of lengthy comments printed underneath the text of the Haggadah.
It’s not clear we could—those are rich chapters, and we have perhaps two hours of storytelling time at our Seder. It’s one reason that preparation will help, a bit each day of this month of Nisan, until we reach the Seder.
Asking you to join me in a chapter by chapter review of Shmot might be a good step, but I think we can do better. First, for all that we learn much each time we engage any text of Torah, those verses might feel too familiar to allow us to approach it with the kind of openness that would lead to a renewed and relived Exodus.
Instead, I want to adapt a technique some museums use to bring their stories alive. By focusing on how the characters in the story did, by asking how we might have hoped to do better, I think we can begin to see ourselves in the story, to picture ourselves there. And then to see ourselves leaving.
The key to that is realizing that people did better or worse during those events. While it’s easy to pretend Hashem handled the story, with humans playing preordained and unchangeable roles, traditional commentators didn’t see it that way. Some of my personal favorites among such commentaros-- R. Baruch haLevi Epstein’s selections of Chazal in his Torah Temimah, Rashi, Ramban, R. Obadiah Sforno of 16th century Italy, and Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz of the late 16th century/ early 17th century Poland)—often frame the story in just this way.
Join me, then, in spending the next two weeks preparing not for the technicalities of the holiday, as important as those are, or even the technicalities of reading through the Haggadah, important as those are. Join me, instead, in bit by bit immersing ourselves back in that time, so that we can say those crucial words, and us He took from there, with a full heart.
Pesach All Year: Mitzvot That Keep Us In Mind of the Exodus
Too often, we allow our retelling of the story, our re-experiencing of the Exodus, to stop there. Once we’ve done our one or two Sedarim, we go back to the rest of the year, limiting our encounters with the Exodus to a few discrete observances, mostly Shabbat, the other major holidays, and the twice-daily mentions in the Shema. Those can give the impression that a Jew’s regular life need not be continually engaged with the memory of Yetziat Mitzrayim, that we are doing what is asked of us if we bring it up occasionally, as required.
Other commandments give the lie to that, put the memory of leaving Egypt into many elements of a Jewish life, making it so essential that it cannot be contained in any boundaries we try to set it. After the Seder, we can spend the rest of Pesach reviewing those other Biblical commandments explicitly linked to our memory of the Exodus.
I focus on Biblical commandments because people too often dismiss Rabbinic rules as an external imposition of those rabbis’ personal values on the Torah’s “original” system. I reject that characterization, intellectually and viscerally, but by using Biblical commandments, I can avoid the issue—the mitzvot we will study are all Torah law, part of the Torah’s “original” intent for how Jews should live.
We are the people who left Egypt, a truth meant to inform many moments of each day. The memory of leaving Egypt is one of the aids the Torah gave us to bring that to fruition. Join me for the next three weeks, and I hope and believe we will find ourselves farther down the road to making that a reality.
We’ll start tomorrow, asking ourselves whether we’d have understood what was happening as it unfolded.