Jews are a people of memory. Perhaps more than anything else, what binds Jews together is a shared collective narrative, preserved and developed through stories, teachings and rituals. The Torah elevates memory to the level of a commandment, instructing us at various times to remember Shabbat, to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and to remember that the tribe of Amalek attacked the Jewish people on their way out of Egypt.
The command to remember demands more than the passive recollection of historical events. Remembering that God rested on the seventh day requires people similarly to rest on Shabbat. Remembering the experience of slavery obligates us to care for those whom society neglects. Remembering Amalek involves fighting oppression in every generation.
While historical memory plays a role in virtually every Jewish holiday, the holiday of Pesach (Passover)–more than any other–is the holiday of remembrance. Going a step beyond the Torah’s insistence that the Jewish people remember the experience of slavery, the Hagaddah demands that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.”
For the Hagaddah, it is not enough simply to remember or even to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Rather, one must also project oneself into the story in order personally to experience the move from slavery to liberation.
The easiest way to understand the obligation to see oneself as personally having come out of Egypt is to read this statement in light of the Hagaddah’s earlier comment that “it was not only our ancestors whom God redeemed from Egypt, for if God had not redeemed our ancestors, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” A literal understanding of the assertion that we would still be enslaved in Egypt had God not redeemed our ancestors from slavery at a specific historical moment enables us to see the exodus narrative as our personal liberation story.
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