I Was Redeemed From Egypt

Reenacting the Exodus in every generation

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Taking this emphasis on the individual one step further, the N'tziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893) likens the command to see oneself as having come forth from Egypt to the talmudic comment that each person should say that the entire world was created for his or her sake. In the same way, the N'tziv says, each person should consider the exodus from Egypt as a personal miracle, done only for him or her. One who sees the exodus as having taken place for his or her own benefit cannot help but be grateful to God and will, therefore, be exuberant in offering the praises that appear in the next few lines of the Hagaddah.

Showing, Not Seeing

In the Sephardic text of the Hagaddah, the command to project oneself back into the exodus narrative appears in a slightly, but meaningfully, different form. There, the obligation is to show oneself (l'harot et atmzo) as having come forth from Egypt. With the addition of a single Hebrew letter, this version changes the obligation from one commanding personal reflection to one governing the way in which one acts in the world.

In Sephardic communities, the command to "show oneself" as having been a slave has led to the custom to act out certain parts of the seder. For example, guests may hit each other with scallions to commemorate the beatings of the Egyptian taskmasters, and may walk around the table holding matzah in order to play out the liberation from slavery.

Some have explained the Sephardic version of the text as an obligation to teach others about the experience of slavery. According to Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai (1724-1806), "It is not enough to think about this and to rejoice internally. Rather, one needs to 'show' this excitement physically so that everyone sitting in one's house will recognize and know it." Similarly, Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) suggests that we need to pretend that we, personally, came out of Egypt in order to "transfer the memory from parent to child."

By acting the part of liberated slaves, parents offer their children a sense of experiencing the liberation first-hand. These children will similarly transfer the memory to their own children. In presenting oneself as a liberated slave, one forces the others at the table also to personalize their own experience of liberation.

Seeing & Showing

An attempt to reconcile the two versions of the Hagaddah text might suggest that seeing oneself as a liberated slave necessarily leads to showing oneself as such and vice versa. In some cases, self reflection leads to changing the way in which one acts in the world. In other cases, action must precede understanding. The obligation to "see" and/or "show" oneself as a liberated slave suggests that memory is a two-fold process that involves both reflection and action. Just as the command to "remember Shabbat" or to "remember what Amalek did" imposes obligation, so too, the commandment to remember our slavery in Egypt cannot be fulfilled through passive memory alone.

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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.