Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on how to find a personal connection to the lessons of Passover
‘In every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt.’
This line from the Passover Haggadah is a pretty difficult one to grasp. Thank God, the vast majority (if not all) of us have never tasted the bitterness of slavery or felt the sting of a whip on our backs. So how can we see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt?
Sure, the Haggadah may be trying to teach us empathy for those who are suffering. But if that were the
case, why not just say that explicitly? While I do believe that empathy is one of the major goals of the
Passover Seder, I think this line is speaking to something different. But before we can address what that might be, we must first understand what it means to ‘go out from Egypt’.
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, meaning ‘a narrow place’ or ‘dire straits’. Whenever the Torah speaks of Egypt, it uses language of ‘going down’ – as in one goes down to Egypt. This phrasing stands in stark contrast to the way we speak of Israel and Jerusalem – as we say one who moves to Israel has ‘made Aliyah’ or has ‘gone up’ to Israel. Therefore, Israel represents the pinnacle of ideology, while Egypt represents the pit of despair.
But Egypt represents more than just despair. Egypt represents alienation, as our ancestors were strangers in this foreign land for hundreds of years. Egypt represents disorientation, as our ancestors knew not where to turn to find salvation from their enslavement. And Egypt represents ignorance and juvenescence, as our ancestors did not yet know about freedom, education, Torah, or God.
In other words, when our ancestors went out from Egypt, they did not just leave slavery, they left behind feelings of alienation, disorientation, ignorance, and despair. And they did not just travel to the promised land, they embarked on a journey towards community, purpose, understanding, and faith.
While it might be difficult to see ourselves as if we went out from a place of servitude, each of us can surely relate to having found ourselves at one point or another in a metaphorical Egypt – a time when we’ve felt like an outsider, lost, or unaware. The Passover Seder is an opportunity for us to reflect on our past year and consider any metaphorical ‘Egypts’ we may have left behind since the last time we were humbled by the act of eating Matzah – the ‘bread of affliction’.
And the Seder is also an opportunity to consider any symbolic ‘Egypts’ in which we might currently be standing. Here, the task is more pressing – the Passover Seder is a call to ask ourselves how we will find the strength to leave behind these new, modern-day Egypts. Will salvation appear in the guise of family or community? Will it come to us through new insights we uncover in an article or a book? Or will we find the strength to leave behind our Egypts through our traditions and faith?
No matter where you happen to find yourself this year – in the straits of your own, personal Egypt or the heights of your spiritual Mount Sinai – I encourage you to take the charge of the Haggadah seriously this year: strive to see yourself as the recipient of a sacred promise to be brought into the Promised Land.