Enslaved to Limitations
“In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt, as it is stated (Shemot 13:8); “For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt.” Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but rather also us [together] with them did He redeem, as it is stated (Devarim 6:23); “And He took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land He promised on oath to our ancestors”” (Pesah Haggadah).
I love the Pesah seder, and so do most North American Jews. At a time of widespread disengagement from institutional Jewish life, The Pew Forum’s A Portrait of American Jews found that 70% of Jews participated in a Pesah seder, a number that far exceeds participation in any other Jewish ritual (by comparison, only 53% fast on Yom Kippur, and only 23% regularly light Shabbat candles).
Many reasons are given for why the Pesah seder is so widely observed, yet the most satisfying one for me is that the Pesah Seder allows for maximal creativity to fulfill the obligation. If a person attends a seder that lasts for ten hours and pours over every detail of the Haggadah, he or she has fulfilled the obligation, yet so has a person who attended a one hour seder that simply explained the Pesah story and the meaning of everything at the table. At a time when we need more people engaged in Jewish life, the Pesah seder’s flexibility creates a level playing field to bring more people into Jewish life.
In his version of the Haggadah, Maimonides has a subtle, but incredibly important, variation on the famous command of the Haggadah text that “In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as he left Egypt.” Here is a side-by-side comparison:
|Traditional Version||Maimonidean Version|
|In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt…||And in every generation, a person is obligated to show himself as if he left Egypt…|
In the more common version, the command to remember the Exodus centers on how we understand the story in our internal religious narrative. But in the Maimonidean version, we are not simply commanded to remember the Exodus in order to change our internal religious narrative; we are commanded to remember the exodus and allow it to change how we engage the world.
Maimonides’ interpretation places a greater burden on every Jew to imagine what it would feel like to be a slave, and what opportunities that freedom creates when we change our mindset and use it to inspire transformative action. In an early Hasidic commentary, Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl writes that redemption is primarily a mental process, challenging us to fight the instinct to become enslaved to limitations, choosing a path of creativity and freedom. He writes:
“Every year there is an exodus from Egypt. Every person has to go through certain trials. Even after you have accepted God intellectually, you still need to be tried ten times…The trial means that your sense of personal connection to God, which had been based on intellect, is taken away from you. In the moment of trial all you have left is the power to choose….That is why the Haggadah says, “Not only our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, but we with them.” Every year we go forth from Egypt” (Meor Einayim, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 2, ed. Arthur Green, 213).
The Meor Einayim views the exodus as an opportunity to break free of mental and physical limitations, to reject fear of the impossible, for what could have been a more impossible dream brought to reality than the redemption of the Israelites from slavery?
Today, as the Jewish Community struggles under the weight of financial, political, demographic and institutional constraints, there may be nothing more important than to take seriously the idea that we choose whether or not our institutions will become enslaved by our limitations. In an age of big, hairy audacious goals, it may seem innovative and forward-thinking to challenge people to billion dollar campaigns and massive turnarounds, but the line between vision and delusion is opaque. If anything, constantly challenging people to impossible goals only guarantees pessimism and learned helplessness when a possible triumph comes along. Even visionary leaders need to be realistic.
At the same time, leaders are obligated to recognize that we have limitations without allowing our limitations to have us, allowing limitations to become straight jackets around the possibility of any turnaround. Sometimes, the spectre of decline and failure causes institutional cultures to become fatalistic; this is the kind of slavery the Meor Einayim rejects, and Maimonides promotes a model whereby the Jewish people are obligated, every year, to see the possibilities of what could be, rather than feel trapped by what is.
This Pesah, our leaders need to push our institutions to act without fear, to imagine a different kind of future, even if that means only achieving some seemingly small and insignificant goals. If we are to show ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt, any act of freedom and creativity is an opportunity for celebration. And when we succeed in doing something small, we build the momentum necessary to make the big, audacious changes we need to thrive.
Hag Kasher V’Sameah.