Highest of the High: Feeling the “I” of Us All
On Passover we say:
“Every person is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt.”
But how is that possible?
The Exodus was so very long ago, and were any of us actually there?
The First Way …
The first way to deal with this challenge is to bring “Egypt” closer to us.
To bring Egypt closer to us means to expand our understanding of what we mean when we say, Mitzrayim, Egypt. With this approach, Egypt is more than the slavery and oppression experienced by the Jewish nation three millennia ago. Mitzrayim, the quintessential “tight, narrow” place is every difficult, challenging, confounding obstacle that threatens to dominate us, to enslave us, and to stifle our ability to be who we are, and to become what we can become. Mitzrayim blocked our way then, and continues to block our paths today; as individuals, and as the Jewish nation trying to find it’s way home once again.
The Second Way …
The second way to deal with this challenge is to bring us closer to Egypt.
The simple understanding of this is that when each person connects himself to the chain of generations, and understands that the event that took place—the Exodus—literally saved him from the Egyptians.
This is deeper. This is more difficult. This is where we actually strive to achieve what our sages set out for us: To see ourselves as if we, together with the nation of Israel, personally left Egypt. The most accessible way to achieve this is to focus on how we have been personally shaped and impacted by that long ago event. It’s not just that it affected them, but that each of us is who we are because of that seminal experience. The Exodus happened, and I’m a completely different person because of it. Had it not happened, my life would be radically different. And so, in essence, I can see myself as if I left Egypt. As it says in the Haggadah:
“And if He would not have taken us out of there, we, our children, and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharoah in Egypt.”
Had that history altering event not taken place, our lives and that of our families—our Jewish lives—would be something altogether different. Clearly our personal gratitude for being part of the Jewish people is firmly anchored in yitziat Mitzrayim. Yet, even with that, the fact remains that none of us, personally, directly, experienced the Exodus.
The Third Way …
This is very deep. In order for a person to see that he personally left Egypt, he must change his consciousness, his perception of his very “I.”
Is to discover and connect with the inner dimension where we actually were in Egypt, and where we actually were part of the Exodus.
This requires a qualitatively deeper perception of reality, the reality at the core of every Jew’s personal identity. True, the “I” that stares back at me in the mirror can never say, “I personally left Egypt,” but there is more to “I” than meets the eye. The actual, true identity of every Jew contains and embraces more than just the individual self that was born a few decades ago, and that has lived and experienced life up until this moment. Every Jew is as much a part of the collective corpus of Am Yisrael as he is an individual, and therein lies the secret to yitziat Mitzrayim being part of our personal, experiential history.
In the sfarim ha’kedoshim, our holy works based on kabbalistic teachings, each Jew’s identity is portrayed as being similar to a cell in the body. In the human body, hundreds of millions of cells, in almost every organ and system in our body, die and are replaced every hour. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the bodies we have today are not the same bodies we were born with. From the cellular perspective, the ‘me” in the mirror today, for the most part, isn’t the same me that was there a month ago, and won’t be the me that will be there in six months. From the perspective of the body, from the perspective of the complete self, though individual cells come and go, there is a larger, consistent identity that remains unchanged.
When a person’s perspective isn’t just on the cell, but on the entire body, then the cell doesn’t relate to itself as a separate, independent existence, rather it’s essential relationship is to the entire body, which is alive throughout the entire lifetime of the body.
Now let’s imagine that a person went through a harrowing, life threatening event, and survived. Years later, from the perspective of the cells, very, very few cells can say that “I” once had this terrifying experience, and thank God I survived. However, from the larger perspective of the body, even many years later, the person can look back and say, “thank God I survived.” This is Am Yisrael, and this is each and every one of us.
According to kabbalistic sources, Shechina is the eternal, collective of Am Yisrael, and it’s primarily via Shechina that Hashem is manifest in this world.
Every Jew is like a cell in the spiritual, eternal, collective of Klal Yisrael, in the Shechina. Every Jew, in essence, simultaneously occupies two dimensions. As an individual, I have my personal identity in the here-and-now of the era in which I live. And, overlapping that identity, is the concurrent, parallel identity of Shechina; of me as an intrinsic, unique, and vitally important part of Shechina. From my personal, yachid perspective, I was born mere decades ago. From my klal, Shechina perspective, I was formed in the womb of Egypt, and yetziat Mitzrayim was the day of my birth. In this sense, no Jew lives for five, fifty or a hundred and twenty years, because when “I” am simultaneously “We,” then just like the nation is nitzchi, eternal, so, am, I.
With the Exodus, was born the Jewish nation, and with the Exodus, “I” too was born. The liberation of yitziat Mitzrayim, the freedom from subjugation to the forces of Egypt; in it’s truest, fullest, deepest essence, is a freedom that not only forever shaped the Jewish people, but directly shaped each and every Jew, no matter when or where she lived, including me, today.
A person is capable of expanding his self-perception and to go beyond the bounds of his personal, individual life. He is able to include himself, completely, within ruach Yisrael, the collective spirit of all Israel, and to blend in, like a cell in the body, into the great, mighty body. And through that, he is also able to blend the boundaries of the time of his personal life into that of the eternal life of Am Yisrael.
When we relate only to our individual, cellular selves, we can’t say that we left Egypt. But when we relate to that collective, parallel dimension—that complete body dimension—the timeless dimension of Shechina, then we absolutely can, “see ourselves as if we left Egypt.” Because I-We, did leave Egypt.
… and Geula
Am Yisrael, Shechina, is eternal. The story of the Jewish nation, and of mankind, will ultimately culminate in the revelation of God’s presence to all humanity, within the context of human history. The powerful spirit of freedom that was set in motion at the Exodus is inextinguishable. No matter what may happen to any one of us, all of us has a lofty, holy mission that is rooted in yetziat Mitzrayim, and that will carry us over every possible obstacle and challenge as we make our way across the harsh wilderness of history, to the ultimate fulfillment of our destiny: Geula Shleima, the final, ultimate redemption.
And so on the night of the seder, while each of us knows that “I” never experienced the Exodus, ‘We” did, and deep within us—where I and We merge—the impact of yetziat Mitzrayim is a living, dynamic force that continues to profoundly shape who we are, our relationship to Hashem, our deep relationship to Shechina, and to the living, unfolding past, present and future of Am Yisrael.
On the seder night, we can truly feel, in our heart-of-hearts—the collective heart of Shechina that beats in us all—the grandeur of our birth, the majesty of our mission, and the eternal power of our inner strength, the force that has carried us through every imaginable challenge, that continues to do so today, and that will, all the way to the fulfillment of our final redemption.
The Holy Seder Night
This is the exalted, rarefied, spirit of kedusha that is present on laiyl seder—laiyl hitkadesh chag—and that is the essence of the chayrut, the true freedom, that permeates our being on that wondrous night. For there is nothing more painful than being chained and sunk within within the dark, narrow “I” of our individual selves, and nothing more liberating, more joyously vivifying, than experiencing and feeling ourselves as something infinitely larger than “I”: As a vital, vibrant part of the Am Yisrael, of Shechina; of that eternal reality that transcends time and place, that is forever alive, forever God’s beloved nation.
Every Israeli soldier knows what it might take, in the midst of battle, to be utterly devoted to Am Yisrael. And that reality, though not necessarily on the battle field, but around the seder table, is our reality too. To be totally and utterly devoted to Am Yisrael—which in it’s ultimate expression also means to be totally devoted to all humanity—because when “Am Yisrael chai,” then the whole world is also alive and brimming with the potential for a light-filled life of the highest kind.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf