Don’t just read it. Live it

“In every generation, a person is required to see that even he (or she) came out of Egypt,” the haggadah proclaims.

Why? Even before we sit down to the first seder, that is the only real question that matters.

The seder is not just another meal, and it is not just another ritual (or, more accurately, a bundle of rituals wrapped up in a single event). Our task is not to retell the story of the Exodus, but to relive it, vicariously, through the rituals that make up its parts.

In some communities, for example, when the seder’s leader breaks the middle matzah in two, he places it in a cloth and places the cloth on his shoulder, to re-enact a significant moment in the Exodus saga: “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” (See Exodus 12:34.)

Some even have the custom of having everyone leave the table at that point and walking outside for a few moments to re-enact the start of the Exodus.

All of us re-enact that moment by what we do not say. Whenever we do a commanded thing, we make a blessing — “who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us” to ritually wash our hands, light Shabbat candles, cover ourselves in a tallit, and so forth.

The Magid section of the seder is a commanded thing, growing out of Exodus 13:8 and Deuteronomy 6:20-21. These verses are the origin and substance of the seder, yet we make no blessing as Magid begins. The blessing comes only at its end.

That is because slaves have no blessings, and as we begin Magid, we are slaves, in a vicarious sense at least. Only at the end of Magid, only when we are free beings, are we able to make a blessing. “Blessed are You, Lord, sovereign of all that exists, Who redeemed us and our ancestors from Egypt, and brought us to this night….Blessed are You, Lord, Who has redeemed Israel.”

So the question looms large. Why, in every generation, must we see ourselves as having come out of Egypt? Why is it not enough merely to retell the story?

The answer lies in why God took us out of Egypt (and, more to the point, why God allowed us to be enslaved in the first place).

The simple answer is that God needed this particular people (us). From the time God called on 75-year-old Abraham to leave his comfort zone in Ur and go to Canaan, God had a plan in mind — and it was not for the entertainment value of watching   people strap leather boxes on their arms and heads, or avoid eating certain animals, or agonizing over whether to carry a handkerchief on Shabbat.

It was because God needed a walking, talking, breathing “instruction book” to humankind.

God created a world, put humans into it, and hoped for the best. What God got was the worst. After 10 generations, God destroyed all of humanity and the animal world, save Noah, his family, and the rescued animals that sailed with him on the ark.

Then God said he’d would never again do that, but over the next 10 generations the world sank once again into its evil ways. Now, God needed another solution, and settled on creating a walking, talking, breathing instruction book. He chose Abraham, “for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right,” (see Genesis 18:19). When there were enough of “his posterity” to form a nation, God would assign them the role of a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (see Exodus 19:6).

Only, Abraham’s immediate “children and his posterity” did not learn what “just and right” meant. By the time his great-grandchildren (our 12 eponymous ancestors) came along, they did not have a conception of “just and right.” Judah dallied with a pagan cult prostitute he picked up on the side of a road. Simeon and Levi used a commandment from God (circumcision) as a weapon to commit mass murder. Joseph was an egotistical tattletale — and his brothers seriously considered murdering him.

In the end, Abraham’s “children and his posterity” could not become God’s instruction book without a serious lesson in humility — and it had to be a lesson they would never forget.

God took Israel out of Egypt to be his “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” to live a moral and ethical life as God defines those terms, thereby demonstrating to all other people how a good life is to be lived.

For sure, we need to put on tefillin, to keep kosher, and to observe Shabbat. These, however, are meant as devices to keep our noses planted to God’s grindstone. They are not ends in themselves, and were never meant to be. No benefit accrues to a person who puts tefillin on his arm and head in the morning, then uses his hands and mind to harm others in any way. Keeping Shabbat is meaningless unless a person understands that Shabbat, in part, is about equality — everyone, even animals, is entitled to a day of rest, and on the same day — and in part about safeguarding the physical world God created.

The Exodus was meant to teach us this lesson, but it happened nearly 4,000 years ago. Reading about it is not enough. Reminding ourselves of it every day in our prayers is not enough. We need to feel the pain of slavery. We need to experience the degradation and shame of slavery. Then we need to experience God taking us out of Egypt, bringing us to Sinai, and giving us our “working papers” — the Torah.

Only if we understand what it means the lowest of the lowest can we understand our purpose for being.

Dwell on this tonight and tomorrow night, and may we all have meaningful s’darim.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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