I Was Redeemed From Egypt

Reenacting the Exodus in every generation

Print this page Print this page

Jews are a people of memory. Perhaps more than anything else, what binds Jews together is a shared collective narrative, preserved and developed through stories, teachings and rituals. The Torah elevates memory to the level of a commandment, instructing us at various times to remember Shabbat, to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and to remember that the tribe of Amalek attacked the Jewish people on their way out of Egypt.  

The command to remember demands more than the passive recollection of historical events. Remembering that God rested on the seventh day requires people similarly to rest on Shabbat. Remembering the experience of slavery obligates us to care for those whom society neglects. Remembering Amalek involves fighting oppression in every generation.

While historical memory plays a role in virtually every Jewish holiday, the holiday of Pesach (Passover)--more than any other--is the holiday of remembrance. Going a step beyond the Torah's insistence that the Jewish people remember the experience of slavery, the Hagaddah demands that "in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt."

camel in egyptFor the Hagaddah, it is not enough simply to remember or even to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Rather, one must also project oneself into the story in order personally to experience the move from slavery to liberation.

Beyond Remembering

The easiest way to understand the obligation to see oneself as personally having come out of Egypt is to read this statement in light of the Hagaddah's earlier comment that "it was not only our ancestors whom God redeemed from Egypt, for if God had not redeemed our ancestors, then we and our children and our children's children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt." A literal understanding of the assertion that we would still be enslaved in Egypt had God not redeemed our ancestors from slavery at a specific historical moment enables us to see the exodus narrative as our personal liberation story.

However, simply referencing the comment that God, in effect, liberated us from Egypt along with our ancestors does not fully explain the obligation to see ourselves as having come forth from Egypt. After all, a tradition that seeks meaning in every seemingly superfluous word, letter, and detail cannot allow the repetition of an entire idea to go unnoticed. Thus, commentators on the Hagaddah suggest a number of additional interpretations of the textual insistence that we remember the exodus by reëxperiencing it.

Some commentators emphasize the individual nature of the statement that each person should see himself or herself as having gone forth from Egypt. The Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili, 125-1330) stresses that "every single individual must see and look at himself as though he had been a slave in Egypt and as though he went forth to freedom." Whereas the Hagaddah frames in the plural its earlier comment that God redeemed both our ancestors and us, the obligation to see ourselves as former slaves is articulated in the singular. On Pesach, the Ritba suggests, it is not enough to speak of our communal liberation from slavery; rather, we must each experience this redemption also as a personal journey.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.