“In every generation, one must see oneself as if one has gone out of Egypt.” On Passover, we, the People of the Book and Broadway, use a rich menu of symbolism and song to bring the most epic story ever told to life and immerse ourselves in the Exodus experience.
To see oneself as if one had gone out of Egypt oneself, I had always assumed, was a universal lesson about human rights. “Do not oppress the stranger, for you too were strangers in Egypt.” Imagining oneself as a survivor of abuse one has not actually experienced means fine-tuning one’s empathy and struggling to see the world through the Other’s eyes. It means cherishing both of Isaiah Berlin’s liberties: freedom from oppression and the freedom of self-definition and purpose.
I still believe that the beauty of Passover lies in this sublime universalism. But on my first Passover as a new immigrant in Israel, I see the story in a more particular light.
To see oneself as having just left Egypt, is to understand that one is still in the Wilderness, in the danger zone, where enemies lurk to foil one’s delivery to liberty. It is to internalise that one’s own liberty is still insecure, and must be fought for and insisted upon.
To see oneself as having left Egypt is to see oneself on the path to the Promised Land, and not a metaphorical Promised Land, but literally this one: to commit to building this improbable oasis in line with the loftiest and most noble visions the Jewish people can collectively muster.
To see oneself as having left Egypt is also, I’ll admit, to express vocal trepidation about one’s own condition: “Did you have to lead us into the desert to die,” moan the Hebrews to Moses. “What, there weren’t enough graves in Egypt?” And then, we persevere.
Whoever does not see both panels of this diptych does not really see himself as having left Egypt. To imagine oneself as having left Egypt means both to put oneself in the shoes of The Other, and to understand that one, as a Jew, still is The Other for a great many people.
The Hebrews who left Egypt may well have developed empathy for other enslaved peoples — but they also understood that their own collective quest for liberty was not over, and that they had their own radiant, redemptive future to build together.
Onwards to the Promised Land, my friends. Happy Pesach!