For the week ending 16 April 2011 / 11 Nisan 5771

Leaving the Mitzraim Within Us

by Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz
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Pesach commemorates the dramatic exodus of the Jews from Egypt after a sojourn of 210 years. The centrality of this experience in Jewish life cannot be overstated. There is a Mitzvah to recount and remember the Exodus every day of the year, morning and evening. In Friday night kiddush we declare "zecher l'yetziat mitzrayim" ("in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt"). The annual Pesach Seder is the most beloved and celebrated Jewish ritual in America. For over three thousand years it has been a primary vehicle for the transmission of our history, our values, and our heritage to our children. As a multimedia pedagogical experience it has yet to be surpassed.

Certainly even Jews of minimal commitment and knowledge are conversant with the basic contours of the Exodus story. Yet there is an aspect of remembering the Exodus that is often overlooked. Slavery takes many forms. There is indeed the obvious slavery of physical persecution and oppression. But there are more subtle forms as well. One can be externally free and nevertheless enslaved to an evil within oneself. Power, envy, intolerance, hatred, cruelty, selfishness, despair, and apathy are all chains that can shackle, cripple, or disable the human spirit far more than the lashings of the harshest taskmaster. Especially where Jews have political freedom, it is often the internal Mitzrayim that poses the greatest threat. It is easier to take the Jew out of Mitzrayim than to take Mitzrayim out of the Jew.

A great Chassidic teacher once explained that the time-honored rituals of the Seder serve not only to commemorate our freedom from the Biblical Mitzrayim, but as a means to achieve redemption from the personal Mitzrayims within each and every one of us.

Let us focus briefly on seven selected aspects:

(1) The Use of Questions: The Talmud makes clear that the narrative of the Haggadah must be preceded by questions. (This is of course the “Ma Nishtana”.) Even if one is celebrating Pesach alone, these questions must be articulated. Thus, step one to achieving spiritual freedom: Be willing to ask honest questions. Don't close the door. Be a seeker of wisdom.

(2) Growing from Adversity: The halacha requires that one begin the Haggadah narrative not with the redemption but with the account of slavery and adversity. This reminds us that even in adversity, failure, or disappointment, there lie the seeds of hope and regeneration; that often our greatest growth arises not from our successes, but from our failures and mistakes if we are courageous and perceptive enough to learn from them.

(3) Maror: Eating bitter herbs highlights the need to honestly recognize and confront these destructive aspects of behavior that are bitter and enslaving.

(4)Four cups of wine/reclining: This calls upon us to recognize that notwithstanding the maror — enslavers — we have the innate capacity and spiritual greatness (with G-d's help) to become liberated. Awareness of our faults must be coupled with an equal awareness of our potential for self-improvement, goodness, and nobility of character.

(5) Matza: All flour mixed with water will become chametz if left unattended for eighteen minutes. If baked before that time, however, what would have become chametz is Matza instead. This teaches us the need for decisive action. Far too often we are momentarily inspired to make positive changes in our lives, but by failing to concretize that resolution into action we allow the inspiration to dissipate.

(6) Paschal Lamb: Of all the many sacrifices this was the only one that could be brought only in collaboration with other people. A single individual standing alone could not bring the Korban Pesach. In all our attempts to reach G-dliness, we must link ourselves to the total Jewish Community in love and concern.

(7) Intergenerational Communication: Ultimately, Judaism survives not through schools or synagogues, but through families — parent to child, child to parent — the established, indispensable formula for growth developed in the Haggadah.

Be an honest searcher, recognize the redemptive potential even in adversity, honestly and courageously confront your faults, believe in your potential for spiritual greatness, be willing to take decisive action, inculcate within yourself a sense of love and compassion for K'lal Yisrael, foster the bonds of intergenerational communication with your parents, your children, or both. These seven steps may not change the world, but they will certainly enable each of us to achieve the “cheirut hanefesh” (freedom of the soul) which is at the core of the Exodus experience.

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