Stories in the Torah are powerful because they resonate within us on multiple levels.
On the face of it, the redemption from Egypt is a narrative of national emancipation from slavery. However, if we look carefully, we will learn that the story is meant to be understood on the personal level. We are commanded to draw forth inspiration from the liberation from Egypt and infuse into who we are today.
R. Kook takes the straight forward meaning of the command mentioned in the haggadah “in every generation each individual is obligated to see himself as if he was redeemed from Egypt” as an interior personal spiritual assignment.
“With the power of the outstretched arm, in order to actualize the great spiritual potential, little by little in every generation, every individual must perfect, grasp, and understand their particular place in the harmonious reality, which comes to them through their individual characteristics and in their generation, going back to the Exodus from Egypt.” (Olat HaRe’ayah, II)
On the national level, the book of Exodus opens by naming the sons of Jacob, indicating that each has his own distinct identity. With the death of that generation, the narrative continues to describe the miraculous exponential birthrate of the Israelite’s who become a faceless mass swallowed up in the bowels of Egypt. Their ‘names’ have become lost. The slave has no name. R. Soloveitchik moves the narrative towards the existential and personal meaning of slavery for the individual slave. The slave, R. Soloveitchik notes, is existentially silent. In the first chapter, amidst the oppressive decrees of Pharaoh, there is no crying out; there is only silence.
Finally, there is a break in the silence:
“And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry rose up to God by reason of the bondage. And God heard the pleading…” (Shemot 2:23-25).
We see here a spiritual butterfly effect. The redemption of the people begins with the slightest stirring in the hearts of the slaves. They sighed. The existential silence has been broken. A cry follows culminating in articulated prayer. The slightest change in the innermost depth of the person, here in the form of the sigh, opens up the possibility for a new story to be told and the emergence of both national and personal identity.
According to R. Zadok HaKohen of Lublin the narrative of national and personal redemption are fused.
“The initial entrance of a person into divine service, avodat haShem must be with haste (hipazon), just like the Pascal sacrifice in Egypt, which was eaten in haste… This is because before all else, a person needs to free himself from desires which he is presently bound up with and are extraneous to who he really is . He must be mindful and alert in order to seize the moment of ‘God given inspiration’. He must hold fast to that very moment, perhaps he will persevere.” (Tzidkat HaTzaddik 1)
By drawing an analogy from the Israelites’ haste in flight from Egypt, to the need of the individual to free herself from negative entrapment’s, R. Zadok is teaching us that national and personal redemption go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin. In order for the nation to be liberated and for that liberation to be meaningful, each and every individual needs to be personally liberated.
For the Slonimer Rebbe (Netivot Shalom, Pesach Zman Cheruteinu 7) the exodus as a model for personal redemption is the straight forward meaning of the narrative. “The time of freedom does not mean remember the past, rather to connect to that which is eternal. When the sages said ‘in every generation one must see oneself as if s/he has come out of Egypt’, it refers to freedom that is eternally relevant, the emerging from slavery to freedom which is essential to each and every individual…” The meaning of the commandment to recite the story of the redemption from Egypt, is for each one of us to discover how we are entrapped and labor to come to face with what we have repressed about ourselves that is in need of redemption.
In this essay I want to emphasize the personal dimension from bondage to freedom, because of the times in which we Jews live; Jews in America enjoy full civil rights, the gates of the former Soviet Union have been open for almost 30 years, and in Israel, we enjoy sovereignty with all of its responsibilities and challenges. Hence we find it difficult to connect to slavery in a more literal and political meaning.
The contemporary meaning of Passover, I believe is best articulated by R. Shagar. In his book A time for Freedom, (Zman Shel Hherut), he describes bondage today as the modern condition of self-alienation. Devoid of an interior anchor – we seek exterior affirmation. We suffer unnecessarily at the hands of the expectations that today’s consumer driven society demands of us. We may be trapped in a circumstance which is not our true calling. We are often trying to live up to an image which is not our own.
So how are we to free ourselves from today’s bondage? Let’s return to R. Zadok. There are moments of Divine inspiration. They penetrate our bubble of habit and shake us up to see new possibilities. They are rare as they are precious. We often encounter knee jerk obstacles such as inertia and fear. These are the modern task-masters of ancient Egypt who deny the possibility of freedom. We must cling to those moments of clear-sighted inspiration, expand them and translate them into our everyday reality. In every generation.