Pesach: Have You Left Egypt?

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“In each and every generation, one must see oneself as if they had left Egypt”. 

In Judaism, we not only commemorate the past, we attempt to experience it, even to re-live it. Why else do we actually have to eat matzah and maror at Pesach, dwell in some flimsy booths each fall, or sit on the floor on Tisha B’Av lamenting the loss of a Temple some 2,000 years ago? 

Yet thankfully, for most Jews today, it is not very realistic to expect that we should feel as if we had left Egypt. Can we really know what it is like to be a slave, performing backbreaking work seven days a week, separated from family—“V’et onyainuzu preshut derech eretz; and our affliction, this refers to the separation of husbands and wives"—with very little to eat, and not knowing what tomorrow will bring[1].  

To think more positively, can we imagine G-d literally passing over our homes, sparing us as He smites our enemies? Or what about the feel of hundreds of thousands streaming out of the most advanced nation on earth to a barren desert with few provisions? And who would like to be able to experience the fear as the Egyptians approached from behind, with nothing but impassable water in front? Can we realistically feel the same emotions as our ancestors, who burst out in spontaneous song as they witnessed the hand of G-d bring them safely across the sea? 

We eat maror, matzah, talk about what happened and when able, gather as a people in Jerusalem as we strive to appreciate the freedom we have. But to actually feel as if we left Egypt seems a tad much for all but the most religiously sensitive people—and perhaps even for them. However, for the rest of us—all of us?—there is little reason to despair. I would argue that the main thrust of the charge to see ourselves as having left Egypt is not a historical one, but rather a moral one, to ensure that the message of the Exodus remains as relevant today as it was 3,500 years ago, and resonates with us year-round. 

The Torah is a book of current events. Everything in it is meant for those living today. While this is obvious regarding many of the mitzvot, for others we need to work a bit harder to discern its current relevance. But work we must. The Talmud notes that, “many prophets arose in Israel, double the number of those who left Egypt, but a prophecy that was needed for future generations was written down [in Tanach] and that which was not needed was not written” (Megillah 14a). If something is written in the Torah, it is written for our generation. The historical record does not warrant space in the Bible. 

While ancient Egypt was the most advanced society of its day, that did not prevent it from evil, a message that sadly resonates in modern times.

Let us briefly mention some Egyptian practices from which we must free ourselves. As we see over and over again in sefer Breisheet, Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient world. Not surprisingly, the art of bread making was mastered in Egypt. Yet instead of using food as a way to bring people together, bread became a way of separating people—specifically foreigners from citizens. “And they set for him [Yosef] separately and for them [the brothers] separately, and for the Egyptians who ate with him separately, because the Egyptians could not eat food with the Hebrews, because it is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Breisheet 43:31).

Is it any wonder that the most oft-repeated concept in the Torah is not to oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt? There is even a specific mitzvah to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Those who feel they must lord over others cannot be free themselves. 

Another Egyptian practice that we must escape is dishonesty in business. “You shall have true scales, true weights, a true ephah, and a true hin. I am the Lord, your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 19:36). This, too, is a sin more readily and easily perpetrated against the stranger and thus, it should be no surprise that two verses earlier we read, “the stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God” (Vayikra 19:34).

And it is only a chapter earlier that we are warned against following the sexual ways of the people of Egypt. “Like the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, you shall not do; and like the practice of the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you, you shall not do; and you shall not follow their statutes” (Vayikra 18:3). The Torah then follows with what we might call the Jewish sexual ethic—one at great variance with that practiced in Egypt.

Being extra kind to foreigners, honesty in business and displaying modesty in sexuality—sounds like we are talking about 2019, and we are. “In every generation, one must see themselves as if they had left Egypt.”

The word Mitzraim comes from the word tzar, meaning narrow. Not at all coincidentally, when G-d appears to Moshe at the burning bush He tells him that “I shall descend to rescue them from the hand[s] of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to an eretz tova urechava, a good, wide, and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Shemot 3:8).

Clearly, narrow and wide are not geographical descriptions, but moral ones. Being free means being able to see beyond the narrow confines of ourselves alone, to see the breadth and beauty of the world around us and to appreciate the good we can do and see in others. If we can do so, we will have left Egypt thousands of years after the original Exodus. “In each and every generation, one must see oneself as if they had left Egypt.”


[1] Sadly, this is not so hard for Holocaust survivors.