All Jews were once slaves in Egypt, whether history proves it or not
Despite being a historian, I have not let the lack of evidence distance me from the Passover message.
“In every generation, a person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.” With these words, we begin to wrap up the “telling” portion of the Passover seder, having already extensively quoted the rabbis and their understandings of the exodus from Egypt.
When I was younger I had an easy time imagining myself as part of the exodus, thanks to art and bibliodrama. I had images of the slaves, images of the ten plagues, and a strong belief that all of those really happened. As a child, my imagination ran free, and I had no trouble being part of a very real story.
As I grew older and, admittedly, more skeptical, I began to doubt different aspects of the Passover story. After hearing about scientific explanations for the plagues and the splitting of the sea, I suddenly had much more trouble placing myself in this dubious story.
But, ironically, what could have been the largest blow to my ability to see myself as if I left Egypt has in fact allowed me to follow the command of the Passover seder more than ever. Around the time that I graduated from high school, I read about a sermon by Rabbi David Wolpe in which he questioned the historical veracity of the exodus from Egypt. The sermon caused quite the uproar in my circles, given the centrality of the exodus to so much of Judaism. But for me, it was merely unleavened food for thought.
No matter what I want to believe (and I want to believe that all of this happened), I am inclined to doubt that there was in fact an historical exodus by the people of Israel from Egypt. Perhaps it’s my background as a student and teacher of history, but without any external evidence or confirmation, I just cannot believe it happened.
However, rather than subduing my ability to relate to Passover, this lack of historical proof actually allows me to heighten my relatedness.
Whether or not there was an exodus 3,200 years ago, one thing is certain: for the past 2,000 years, our tradition has commanded us to posit this exodus from Egypt, historic or otherwise, at the center of our faith through a night of telling its story. What connects us to our past is not the historicity of the exodus, rather the way we give the story such importance. According to this tradition, we cannot be Jews if we cannot understand the experience of slavery and at the same time the experience of redemption.
So what does it mean to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt? First and foremost, it means forcing ourselves to empathize with slaves. It forces us to think of that which enslaves us in our day- be it our jobs, technology, or the personal demons that we each battle in our own way.
Secondly, we are forced to confront what it means to be released from slavery. Our sages used their imaginations and the Torah—creating midrashim about the number of plagues God dealt the Egyptians with each finger. Yet there is no doubt that they were also imagining what they needed to do to escape the oppression of the Romans, against whom many rabbis were fighting for their independence. As we tell the story of God’s wonders in Egypt, we must think for ourselves what we must to do to feel free.
Finally, in order to truly identify with the exodus from Egypt, we must understand how we have been (and continue to be) freed. The Jewish redemption from slavery meant the ability to serve God instead of Pharaoh. Our freedom from slavery does not mean freedom from acting on behalf others, but rather it means the ability to choose how we will serve others.
On this Passover, as on every one before, I will decide not to be a slave, but to pick for myself how to serve myself, how to serve my loved ones, and how to serve God. This past year, I have been a slave, but soon, I will be free.
Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and is beginning the Israeli bet midrash program at the Schechter institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.
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