Imagining Liberation

This week’s dvar was written by Yitzhak Bronstein, director of the Maimonides Moot Court Competition -- a program that empower students to grapple with contemporary moral issues through the prism of Jewish law and ethics at Hadar.org

The role of memory on Pesah is unique among all Jewish holidays. Nowhere is this more clear than in the concluding paragraph of Maggid:

בְכָּל־דוּרֹ ודָורֹ חַיבָּ אָדָם לִרְאותֹ אֶת־עַצְמו כְאִּלוּ הואּ

יצָָא מִמִּצְרַיםִ, שֶׁנאֱֶּמַר: והְִגדְַּתָּ לְבִנךְ בַיּוּםֹ הַהואּ לֵאמרֹ,

בַעֲּבורּ זהֶ עָשָהׂ ה’ ליִ בְצּאֵתִי מִמִּצרְיַםִ. לאֹ אֶת־אֲבותֵֹינוּ

בִלְּבָד גאַָּל הַקָּדושֹׁ בָרּוךּ הואּ, אֶלָאּ אַף אותָֹנו גאַָּל

עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנאֱֶּמַר: ואְותָֹנו הוצִֹיא מִשָּׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא

אותָֹנו,ּ לָתֶת לָנו אֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נשִָׁבַעּ לַאֲבתֵֹינוּ

Generation by generation, a person is obligated to see oneself as having left Egypt, as it is said:
 
“And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘Because of this, God acted for me when I came out of Egypt.’”
 
It was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One redeemed; but rather, we were also redeemed with them:
 
“[God] took us out from there, to bring us to the land promised to our ancestors to give to us.”

The obligation is not only to recall the Exodus but to relive it. On the one hand, rituals of remembrance on festivals are commonplace: We light a menorah on Hanukkah to remember the miracle of the oil. We circle the bimah on Sukkot with the four species to remember a ritual performed on Sukkot in the Temple. On the 9th of Av, we read the Book of Lamentations to remember the destruction of the Temple.
 
Yet, it is only on Pesah where the obligation to reenact is described not as an exercise of memory—to remember that the Israelites were liberated—but to see oneself as having actually lived through the experience. What is it about Pesah that calls for a different relationship with memory?
 
A second peculiarity emerges in how the Haggadah describes the Exodus experience earlier in Maggid. Rather than citing the verses in the Book of Exodus that describe the story, the Haggadah quotes from the twenty-fifth chapter of Deuteronomy. The chapter describes the First Fruits ceremony, which took place in the Beit ha-Mikdash (Temple) on Shavuot. On Shavuot, each householder would bring their first fruits to Jerusalem. Once there, they recite an invocation, narrating briefly the journey from Egypt to the land of Israel.
 
In describing the Exodus, why does the Haggadah cite the First Fruits invocation in Deuteronomy, rather than the narrative from the Book of Exodus?
 
Some scholars suggest that the First Fruits text is included in the Haggadah because it would have been familiar to many Jews in Temple times. [1]
 
I would like to suggest that the choice to cite the First Fruits text at a central point in the Haggadah is closely related to the obligation to see oneself as having personally experienced the Exodus. At the end of the ceremony, after one has recited the invocation describing the Exodus, the passage concludes:

דברים כו:יא

ושְָמַׂחְתָּ בְכָל־הַטּובֹ אֲשֶׁר נתַָן־לְך ה’ אֱלהֶֹיך ולְּבֵיתֶךָ

אַתָּה והְַלֵוּיִ והְַגרֵּ אֲשֶׁר בְקִּרְבֶךָּ

Deuteronomy 26:11
And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God your Lord has bestowed upon you and your household.
 
The person being addressed in this verse is a farmer who has toiled for many months on their land. At the moment when the fruits of their labor are finally coming to realization—and when one is most likely to feel self-congratulatory over their hard-earned success—the Torah commands them to travel to Jerusalem and assist the Levite and stranger, neither of whom possess land of their own.
 
But what does this ritual have to do with Pesah which leads to it being cited at the peak of Maggid?
 
I would suggest that, in a sense, this ritual is a manifestation of what it means to have experienced liberation from slavery. The experience of liberation is incomplete until the Israelites can provide this freedom to others by ensuring others’ material needs are met.
 
Although the Israelites are freed from Pharaoh on Pesah, it is not until the First Fruits ceremony on Shavuot that they embody this freedom by sharing their economic bounty with the landless.
 
With freedom comes a newfound responsibility for the less fortunate, and it is only during the First Fruits ceremony that this quality of liberation is actualized.
 
With this backdrop, the meaning of seeing ourselves as having personally left Egypt becomes clearer. This directive is not only about our capacity to imagine ourselves departing from Egypt, but something far more action-oriented and concrete—that we must act in the world as if we ourselves had been oppressed and then liberated.
 
One who has experienced liberation can feel the ultimate motivation to help others in need, and this paragraph in Maggid calls us to see ourselves in this light. It is for this reason that we are instructed not only to remember liberation, but to relive the experience through the Seder, so that it truly informs how we treat others throughout the year.
 
To this end, we recite the First Fruits invocation, the first instance in the Torah where the Israelites have an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of what liberation entails.
 
The challenge of Seder night is to put ourselves in the place of a liberated slave such that it transforms how we relate to those whose liberation is not yet realized. There are countless instances in the Torah where the justification of a particular mitzvah is connected to remembering the Exodus from Egypt; there’s even a biblical obligation to recall the Exodus each and every day.
 
From our earliest beginnings, the experience of liberation was intended to be foundational to our identity and inform our core values. However, the ubiquity of the imperative to remember the Exodus can belie how challenging it truly is.
 
On Seder night, we are not remembering the Exodus for the sake of memory but exploring what it means to live life having been transformed by the Exodus.
 
Our task is not only one of imagination, but one of channeling our liberation narrative into transforming the world.

1 Among other suggestions, see the detailed analysis in Joshua Kulp, The Schechter Haggadah, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2009), pp. 213-215.
 
SHARED COURTESY OF THE HADAR PESACH READER Copyright © 2021 by Hadar

Shabbat Shalom