Leaving Egypt through the Holocaust – Pesach VII 5773

At my yearly seder we play a game. It’s called “I’m leaving Egypt.”

The first contestant says “I’m leaving Egypt and I’m taking …an apple!”—or something else starting with the letter “A.”The second person will announce that they’re taking what the first person took, and then something starting with the next letter of the alphabet (ex. a Banana). This continues from A to Z, as the amount of items one needs to remember grows with each letter. Sometimes we pick tricky alliterations or tongue twisters to make it more difficult. The game is a lot of fun, and a must at our yearly seder. Each year, if we haven’t played the game, we haven’t really left Egypt.

Every year, the hagaddah instructs us: “B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayimIn every generation, each person is obligated to behold herself as if she came out of Egypt.

So, as Pesach is nearing the end, I ask — have I really left Egypt? What in my life is different today because on trying relive this ancient experience of salvation and freedom? Or is it simply a sentimental memory, of great meaning for two nights a year but perhaps not meant to last?

Because there’s a problem: I wasn’t there.

Christians have the same issue as we do. Yesterday, millions of them sang:“Were you there when they crucified my lord…  The answer?…. No! It was two thousand years ago! But for them it remains the same challenge– the act of living one’s life, seeing one’s self, as if one had personally witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.

For both Christians and Jews, this gets to the bigger question — how do we integrate the lessons of history we did not personally experience? How do we own/relive something that didn’t personally happen to us? Perhaps this is the tragedy of the wicked child in all of us, that part of our soul that each year says “Mah Ha’avodah hazot lachem”–what is this service to you?”

This is a big life question about how much history or memory actually matters. And I think we can learn a deep, if striking lesson about this from our next Jewish holiday, coming up this Sunday. I’m of course referring to Yom HaShoah.

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Yom HaShoah commemorates a historical event that we know intimately. We know it through history books, classes, museums, and documentaries. We have visited camps in Germany & Poland. We have met survivors or have them in our families, and some of us in the Beth El community are survivors of this horror of Jewish history.  But for all of us, perhaps the most important thing we have come to understand of the Shoah, the two most important and most repeated words about it, are these: “Never Forget.”

And yet, as important as this is, as many resources as we have for education and learning about the Shoah, despite the number of documentaries and testimonies and movies on the big screen, the farther we get from the Shoah, the easier it seems to be to forget.

The Holocaust was once an anchor for Jewish identity. But now the history of Jewish death and persecution unattractive to a more stable, more assimilated generation of Jews. Some only identify with the more “positive” sides of Judaism, or narratives that see us as less “other” or distinct or as victims. And some are challenged by today’s abundance of anti-Israel narratives from which often seek to efface or diminish the Shoah from the world’s memory.

But perhaps more basically, and with less malice of forethought, some of us, our kids, our grandkids, people my age, is that we simply weren’t there.

So why do still say to them, to each other, to everyone of every age: “Never Forget?”

Because we have a conviction that knowing and acting on this history is of immense benefit and of immense consequence to the world.

The are varying answers as to why. Some thinkers say that the Holocaust gave us important if harrowing truths about the Jewish experience in the world, about the roots and forms of anti-Semitism, and especially about the necessity for the State of Israel. Others say that we have learned universal and incredibly relevant truths about the consequences of indifference, our responsibility to speak truth to power, and how important it is to protect the vulnerable in a just society.  Still others think that we shouldn’t moralize the Shoah, except to witness that it opened our eyes to the reality of human suffering, human cruelty, and in the midst of that darkness, the steadfast possibility of human compassion.

But one thing is sure – that it is aleinu, upon us, to never forget; that when we bear witness and remember, it is of critical benefit and importance to the Jewish people and the whole world. As the old adage goes, those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.

I hope you’ll forgive me for this walk through the dark side of never forget, for it is only with the purpose of illuminating the light side. And that light side is the celebration of Pesach.

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For if the Shoah is our people’s darkest moment that should remain ever emblazened in our minds, the Exodus from Egypt was no less powerful to our ancestors, who made us gather our families around a table, fly them in, cook incessantly, share food, prepare the haggadah, just so we coud hear that message that completely defined our ancestors relationship to the world:

The Exodus from Egypt is the first Jewish: “Never Forget.”

That’s why the rabbis made the Seder! That’s why they say in the hagaddah: “Vaafilu  kulanu chachamim, kulanu n’vonim, kulanu yodim et ha torah, mitzvah aleinu l’saper biytziyat mitrayim — Even if all of us were wise, people of understanding, and learned in Torah—” even if we all had excellent judgment, or PhD’s in Jewish studies, or were rabbis, or were nationally syndicated columnists and truth tellers in whatever public sphere)…it would still be our obligation to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Moreover, “vchol hamarbeh l’saper biytziyat mitrayim, harei ze m’shubach — whoever searches deeply into its meaning is considered praiseworthy.”

But why? If the Shoah has lessons we should remember, what lessons does the Exodus have that we should remember? And moreover, how can we actually internalize them – after all, we weren’t there!

Surveying contemporary educational materials about the Holocaust, I found that the best resources always seem to revolve around personal stories. When we read or hear someone else’s personal story, whether in film, in print or in person, we “get it.”

I remember a survivor, Charlene Schiff, z’’l coming to talk to my 7th grade classroom and speaking about her experience running from the Nazis, hiding in a haystack, the horrible murders that happened as she hid, and the few kindnesses she experienced as she made her way to safety. Many classmates of mine, not Jewish, came up to her in tears to thank her and to hear more. It was her personal story that moved them.

The survivors of the Shoah are fewer and farther between. But the survivors from the Exodus are long since gone, their stories only passed down into the Torah. We read one of the biggest ones today, the Song at the Sea. But if we are looking for a truly personal story, we have to look harder.

I would say that to find the touching personal stories of the Exodus, we look in an unfamiliar place. And that is in the Torah’s mitzvot.

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The poet, Chayyim Nachman Bialik, famously taught about the connection between halakhah and aggadah, between law and narrative. Each halakhah, or mitzvah, or law, is the expression of an experience, a narrative vision of the world. This same idea was famously and eloquently taken up by the famous legal scholar Robert Cover, in his Foreword to the Harvard Law Review of the 1982 Supreme Court, entitled “Nomos and Narrative.”

To quote Cover: “No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture… History and literature cannot escape their location in a normative universe, nor can prescription, even when embodied in a legal text, escape its origin and its end in experience, in the narratives that are the trajectories plotted upon material reality by our imaginations.”

Unpacking this could take a whole semester course. But in short, I would summarize Cover as arguing that law expresses narrative, a vision for the world, a response to personal or communal experience. And so let us examine the laws that connect to the Exodus from Egypt. For as much as seeing these as  commandments are from God, which I surely do, we can see them as expressions of relationship to the world that emerge from the lived experience of being freed from slavery:

An opening story:

1. Lev. 19:34: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

The lesson of slavery here is that the experience of slavery and of being abused as outsiders taught us about the need for loving the stranger as oneself.

Imagine Jacob’s whole family coming to Egypt to being amicable business partners and upright citizens, but ending up enslaved and abused by the state. Their cries for justice unheard, the wound remains deep, and they vow later that such treatment as we received is not the way of the living God, and we shall welcome him among us with love.

A second story.

2. Lev. 25:39-43: “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants (avadim), whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves (avadim). Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.”

Here, the experience of slavery affected people so that they wanted to not just change the way they treated strangers, but others in their own group. They offered a radical new vision that we are rightly slaves or servants to God alone, not to man who is flesh and blood.

Imagine a Hebrew woman, recalling her experience of getting beat down under the Egyptian sun,  as she brought water to her husband and children, thinking that this slavery would never end. We can imagine her crying tears of joy as she found herself across the sea in freedom. In the wilderness, we can envision her teaching to her children, and talking to her friends, and posting on her facebook and twitter accounts that never again should members of our Jewish family inflict the horrendous, eternal submission and hardships of slavery upon each other. Those who are in debt and enslaved among us must know it gets better, and our mitzvah is to make freedom and independence possible for our brothers and sisters.

And a final short story:

3. Lev. 11:45: “For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”

Not only the position of the foreigner and the slave among us are at stake, but we realized that we haven’t been given this freedom for no reason. We had to do something with our lives. Under God’s guidance, we must become holy –separate—elevating each action. Because slaves, we never ever had the fullness of that choice.

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There are many more mitzvot—tithing, charity to the poor, the Sabbath, and so many other values and institutions of Judaism are tied directly to the people’s experience of leaving Egypt. These mitzvoth are like interviews from a documentary, like love letters to us from the past.

They witness for us not only God’s will, but the joyful, meaning-filled response of our people to the lived experience of slavery. And to say that these things are the will of God, as our Torah does, is to say that they are not just poetically true but historically true, born out of the experience of our people.That just as the Holocaust offered us lived lessons from our people’s time of darkness; the Exodus offers us lived lessons from our people’s emergence into the light.

So ask yourself, before the end of Pesach, have you left Egypt? What would be life look like living as if you went out of Egypt, as if its lessons were as real to you and embodied to you as those of the Shoah? Examine and contemplate these mitzvot in your own time. or think about it. They are the survivors of our Exodus, and through them we discover how to live a life with awe and reverence for our people’s freedom. They offer us a Jewish life of not only remarkable justice but remarkable empathy, a life of service to that which deserves our service, and of life-enriching holiness.

For the people of Israel left Egypt, and it is the message of Passover to never forget.

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