The Exodus as Present, Not Past

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The Exodus story may be rooted in the past but it is also a current, living experience for the Jewish people.

As taught in Sunday school, the eight days of Passover commemorate our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt and remind us of God’s miracles that accompanied that ancient redemption. This, however, is not its intent, at least as understood by the sages of the Talmud. Passover is not history. It is not memory. Rather, Pass­over is intended to be a living experience. “In each and every generation,” Rabban Gamliel taught, “an individual is obligated to view himself as if he exited from Egypt.”
 
History is something that happened to others. Memory is the replay of our own personal history. We may take lessons from both history and memory but we do not internalize the experience and make it part of our self. A current, living experience, on the other hand, becomes part of our self and informs our interactions and relationships. Such is our experience of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea and the miracles that accompanied them. 
 
Classical Jewish thinkers present two themes in explaining the idea that the experience of redemption is current, not historical. One theme focuses on the actual experience. The suffering of the Jews in Egypt is our suffering; their despair over its neverending nature is our despair.
 
Yesterday we were slaves to whatever afflicted us; today we have been freed. In this rendition, we emerge from our experience of oppression and redemption with greater sensitivity to the suffering of others and ready to act on their behalf. As we say at the beginning of the seder: “This is the bread of affliction,” — the symbol of our suffering and our redemption — “let all who are hungry come and eat.”
 
The second theme focuses on our being witness to God’s many miracles that accompanied our redemption and to God’s love for us, his people, to which his miracles are testament. On the Intermediate Shabbat of Passover, we read the Song of Songs, in which the author asserts, “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine” — a reference to the eternal nature of the love that God and we share.
 
Like all lovers, we sometimes have our spats; we might even separate. But the spats and separation are only temporary. In this rendition, our annual experience of the miracles of Passover sensitizes us to the contemporary miracles that make possible our ongoing existence as a people and provide the basis for a renewed commitment to God and to God’s mitzvot. On seder night, we declare: “Now let us offer before Him a renewed song (of love),” and commit ourselves to doing our part in sustaining it.
 
As a contemporary Jewish educator, I might suggest a third understanding of Rabban Gamliel’s requirement that in each generation, every individual must experience the redemption from Egypt. We are each bidden to internalize the Exodus through the experiences of our own lives and in the context of our own times.
 
The lessons we take from the Exodus and the ways we act upon them depend on our life experiences, contemporary cultural norms and generational challenges. Our lessons might differ from the lessons taken by earlier generations whose contexts and challenges were different from ours; the lessons our children will take might be still more different. But it is the allowance for those differences that keeps our tradition fresh so that it continues to shape the way Jews live their lives, interact with the world and maintain their love for God.
 
Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, received his ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva.

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