“In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we personally had come out from Egypt.”
– (Mishnah, Laws of Passover)
I hope you had a meaningful Passover Seder. The Passover Seder might be the oldest surviving ritual in the Western World. According the Hebrew Bible, it dates back some 3300 years, to the night before the Israelites began their journey out of Egypt.
Modern scholars agree that the Passover Seder as we know it is at least 2000 years old, dating back to the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. In contemporary America, at least 90 percent of Jews have attended a Seder, the highest percentage of participation in any Jewish ritual except for Chanukah.
What accounts for this longevity and popularity? I believe the answer lies in the text quoted above. “Each of us must see ourselves as if we personally had come out from Egypt.” When we read the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, we are not simply giving a history lecture. We are traveling back in time. We are stimulating and developing our Jewish memory.
Indeed, the Passover Seder is a brilliant exercise in memory rather than history. History is “his story.” It is something that happened to someone else. Memory is my story. Memory is what happened to me. Memory is a challenge, but it is what the Passover Seder demands of us. By dipping the parsley in saltwater, by eating the maror, by eating the matzah, we are experiencing the bitterness of slavery and joy of freedom. We are making the Israelites’ story our story, their experience becomes part of our collective memory.
Why does this matter? By making the Exodus story our story, we develop empathy for and identification with the ancient Israelites, and all those who are enslaved. Today this includes those enslaved to addictions, poverty, political oppression and the numerous other ways people are limited and held back from realizing their freedom and potential. Their freedom is our freedom, and our challenge.
– Rabbi Evan Moffic