…as if he personally left Egypt.
“’In each and every generation a person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.’ As it says ‘And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘For the sake of this God did for me when he took me out of Egypt.’ It wasn’t just our forefathers that the Holy One Blessed Be He redeemed, but we too were redeemed with them. As it says ‘And it is we that were taken out of there in order to bring and give the land that was promised to our forefathers.’”
The Exodus took place so very long ago, in a remote time in history, in what seems like another world. And yet, “A person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt.” But how? How can we be expected to actually see ourselves as if we were there?
There are two approaches to achieve what seems to be unachievable.
The most well known is drawn from the wellsprings of Chassidic thought and pathways of avodat Hashem, of developing one’s relationship with God. This approach calls on us to draw the essence of the Exodus into the parameters of our lives by expanding the definition of Mitzrayim, Egypt. The word mitzrayim has the meaning of narrow, constricted and entrapped. Without a doubt, each of us feels constricted and trapped in ways that confine and choke our potential. Each of us battles with a personal mitzrayim that shackles us, that holds us back, and keeps us down. Indeed, in each and every generation there are unique challenges particular to that era. Challenges that confront the Jewish people, and aspects of those challenges that confront and confound every individual Jew. In fact, the Ramchal taught that the Exodus from Egypt never reached it’s culmination and continues throughout history. Yes, in every generation there are obstacles and enemies that rise up and threaten to destroy us. And yes, therefore, in every generation each and every one of us must, and can, draw from the ongoing force of the Exodus, from that liberation from bondage, and overcome the personal challenges that threaten to overwhelm us.
That’s the first approach, but there is another.
The second approach is to take the words of our sages at face value: That a person must see himself as if he, together with the Jewish nation, personally left Egypt. This means that we must dissociate ourselves from the here-and-now context of our personal lives and make a time-spanning leap into a different historical period so that we can, actually, see ourselves leaving Egypt. But how? By fully appreciating that not in theory, but in actuality, we are part of a spiritual chain, a millennia-spanning people that actually was liberated from Egypt. As it says in the Haggadah, “And if we were not taken out of Egypt … we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharoah in Egypt.” Doing this, liberates remarkable, personal gratitude. Within us is the ability to connect to the reality that the profound kindness of the Exodus from Egypt touches every Jew, every Jewish soul, today, and in every age. Had that history altering event not taken place, our lives and that of our families—our Jewish lives—would be something altogether different. The Exodus echoes within us, shapes us—the most basic nature of our very existence— and so we are each able to say a personal ‘thank you’ to God, and to feel that yes, we personally experience the Exodus in our very being, our lives.
This approach, this understanding, points us to something deeper still.
I. We. I.
At the end of the day, we are still left with the question: “But I didn’t leave Egypt. I was born a liberated Jew in the land of Israel. How can I see myself ‘As if I left Egypt!?’” The deeper answer to this question is found within a fundamental shift in perspective in terms of how one understands the inner relationship between the Jew as an individual, and the klal, the grand collective of Am Yisrael.
The relationship between the individual and the collective is similar to the relationship of the cells in the body to the entire body, the entire person. In the human body, hundreds of millions of cells, in almost every organ and system, die and are replaced every hour. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the bodies we have today are not the same bodies we were born with. From the cellular perspective, the ‘me” in the mirror today, for the most part, isn’t the same me that was there a month ago, and won’t be the me that will be there in six months, or six years. From the perspective of the body, from the perspective of the complete self, though individual cells come and go, there is a larger, consistent identity that remains unchanged.
When a person’s perspective isn’t just on the cell, but on the entire body, then the cell doesn’t relate to itself as a separate, independent existence, rather it’s essential relationship is to the entire body, which is present throughout the entire lifetime of the body.
Now let’s imagine that a person went through a harrowing, life threatening event, and survived. Years later, from the perspective of the cells, very, very few can say that “I” once had this terrifying experience, and thank God I survived. However, from the larger perspective of the person as a whole, even many years later, the person can look back and say, “thank God I survived.” This is Am Yisrael, and this is each and every one of us.
The Jew In the Klal
Each of us is a cell in the collective body, a priceless ring in the history-spanning chain of Am Yisrael, in Shechina. Generations come and generations go, yet there is an eternal: There is ha’aretz, the land, and Shechina, the collective, national “I.” As in our image of the body, a person can either relate to himself solely as an individual, or he can see himself as being far more than just self-contained self. As an individual, his lifetime begins with his parents and his birth. His grandparents and ancestors all preceded him in life and history.
On the other hand, each of us can expand our perspective and see ourselves as intrinsic aspects of the transcendent, collective ruach of Israel; as cells in a strong, grand, timeless body. With this lense on life and self, we understand and sense that we are part of the ongoing, ever-present eternity of the nation of Israel. Within us beats not just our hearts, but the heart of Am Yisrael. Her joys, and her pains, literally, are ours. And so, just like a person saved from death will feel grateful for the rest of his life, so too each of us contains the reality of having gone from brutal bondage to exalted exodus, from slavery to liberation.
The great inner message of yetziat mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, is that what was liberated at that moment wasn’t just people, but the ruach, the heart, soul, and destiny of Israel. What was liberated at that moment was the vast potential of Israel to impact the world, to repair the multi-layered shattering within every dimension of creation. A powerful nation acting on the stage of history, against all odds, and in the face of every force that might deny our inner Godliness—the Shechina that is our collective totality—to elevate and ennoble not just ourselves, but all humanity.
Understanding ourselves in this way infuses us with unwavering confidence in our personal ability and potential that is, in fact, an ability and potential that flows from being a vibrant part of a thriving, eternal nation. This immutable mega essence stirs undaunted courage enabling us to overcome the most harrowing obstacles as we strive towards the realization of our lofty mission: To be the light, the light in the darkness of history, the light of the world’s cosmic salvation, emerging out of the dawning rays of geula shleima, the final and complete redemption.
A Person Must See Himself
True, no individual for well over two millennia experienced the exodus from Egypt, but the klal, the Am, did. And so, to this very day, we, the Am, though now the host to new cells, is the same Am that left Egypt almost thirty centuries ago.
To see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, we don’t need to change anything, or travel any great distance, other than the distance between seeing ourselves as a singular self, or as a collective Self. We don’t need to change anything other than the awareness that the heart that beats within us is Our heart. Our shared experience, shared tragedies and achievements, shared being, essence, dreams, mission, faith, and hope. From there, on the exalted night of the seder—on the night when Shechina, Knesset Yisrael, is manifest—it’s barely a step at all to feel, and see ourselves as the very ones that left Egypt. The very ones that strode into the dawns light with a feeling of collective birth like transformation, ready for a future of remarkably noble promise.
The Profound Fortune of Knesset Yisrael
Let’s focus for a moment on a powerful point.
Shechina, Knesset Yisrael, is a living, vibrant reality. To see a child graduate high school or college is wonderful. To see that same child mature, married and raising a beautiful family is a wondrous, almost other-worldly joy. Whatever blessing, joy and good fortune we may be able to feel in our personal lives, as real as it is, it’s dwarfed by the blessing, joy and great fortune inherent in Knesset Yisrael.
The sōd, the beneath-the-surface reality of our inner, transpersonal, Knesset Yisrael identity, is the reason why Jews are naturally ready to utterly devote themselves to the Jewish people; to make any sacrifice, any sacrifice, and even the ultimate sacrifice. Every spark in the flame of Klal Yisrael is illuminating, magnificent and precious. And, at the same time, each is a singular spark in a greater, qualitatively different collective flame. There is preciousness, strength and spectacular richness in the vast soul of the nation that transcends the individual. This transcendent Shechina-Knesset Yisrael is the inner yearning and dove-like cooing of the shared soul that breathes and yearns and roars within us all.
At that moment in June, 1967 when the nation heard the impossible to process, shofar-like utterance of Har Ha’bayit b’yadeinu—the Temple Mount is in our hands—it was the inner Shechina that echoes in us all that expressed a stunned, joyous, dancing, tear-soaked exhilaration that was not of this world. In those moments and days, each of us became none of us in the face of all of us.
A Great Spiritual Calling
We are faced with a great spiritual calling and challenge: To burst through the shell of individuality that surrounds us and to connect in the deepest, strongest way with the life of the nation, that, we truly are. That transcendent essence at the core of our being.
To live a life thoroughly enveloped in the life of the nation, it’s sorrows and joys. It’s failures and it’s triumphs. To be a drop in an ocean, or a ray of sunlight, is not an erasure of self, God forbid, it’s an elevation of self. It’s to be not just beautiful and vital, but to be a beautiful and vital part of an immense, breathtaking beauty that shines from one end of the world to the other. In each of our seemingly limited hearts, is a heart as deep as the ocean—Shechina—as expansive and awesome as the heavens. From this place of realization, where we grasp our inner beauty and value, qualities and capabilities explode into a fusion of potential that lifts us to the highest imaginable reality.
Simply put, a life that isn’t connected to a reality beyond the self, will never have the same depth of meaning, or be able to draw from the same wellspring of power, motivation and vitality, as the life that is both self, and far more than self. Remember, every individual is like a cell in the body, and so, in essence, the life experience, so to speak, of the cell, is the life experience of the entire person. Thus, the life of every Jew is the life of the nation. Beneath the surface, the personal circumstances and challenges we all contend with are, in reality, a manifestation of the unique challenges facing Am Yisrael in our generation. Our struggles, our strivings, our great efforts, and our successes—small and large—are successes that echo throughout the collective soul of Knesset Yisrael. Our efforts not only impact us, they impact our generation. Indeed, they are part of the ongoing history-spanning striving and striding forward of our nation from the time of Avraham, to this very day.
With all this in mind; with our awareness that we are part of something much larger, and with our assumption of responsibility for our personal lives in the context of Shechina-Knesset Yisrael, we become more connected than ever to the power, courage, spirit, achievement, and success that is the promise of Am Yisrael. Our lives, and the historic life of Israel, is powered by the same inner force that will drive us, eventually, to the success that is our eternal destiny.
National Challenges Reflected In Individual Life Challenges
On the night of the seder, at that time when our nation first came into being, every Jew is capable, and obligated, to go beyond the confines of his or her personal life and to merge with the larger context of his life; a life that is intrinsically defined by being an integral part of an eternal nation, the nation of Israel. In the revolving rhythm of our daily lives, it’s easy to lose sight of a bigger picture, but the seder night isn’t just another day, it’s the day. The seder night is the very beginning. It’s that moment when we can stand and scan what’s around us, and what’s in front of us. It’s from there that we can take in a panoramic view of everything we are meant to be, everything we were, and are, born to achieve. On that night we were created, “A nation from out of the midst of another nation.” From that pristine vantage point the entire generation, and each individual, can sense the deep meaning inherent in the life of the collective nation of Israel, the life of every cell—every Jew—in the body of that nation.
As a unique and vital part of the greater nation, we are able to transcend so much of what holds us back because much of what holds us back is rooted in being stuck in a small, lonely, singular perspective. To lift our sights and see both ourselves, and the nation we are bound up in as sharing a collective oneness, enables us to acquire a sense of proportion, of what’s vital and critical, and what’s secondary and tangential. That which is critical, vital, and central—that which gives meaning and proportion to everything else—is clearly illuminated by the great light present on leil seder. On that most auspicious night, the lofty mission of Am Yisrael to be nothing less than a source of the greatest light to all mankind shines like at no other time.
On the night of the seder, this brilliantly elevated perspective enables us to see not just our generation, but the chain of all Jewish generations—from the beginning of our story to the end. And, from that higher place, to draw fantastic strength and commitment and determination to live a life that isn’t just our own smaller life, but is a magnificent piece of the history-spanning, and history-shaping Nation: The Nation of Israel.
This higher vision gives us the ability, today, in our era, to understand our unique place and purpose in the unfolding history of the nation. Like every stage in one’s life is built on that which came before, so too the life of the nation. Our days are built upon the days that came before, and our contribution to the klal—to the collective nation—is shaped by all that the klal has become up until now.
We can better understand this when we reflect on the life stages of the individual. Childhood, adolescence, mature adulthood, and old age. Each life stage is unique, each has it’s own dynamic, and at the same time, each is an outgrowth of what came before. And, only when taken together, do we have a full, complete life. A person grows, step-by-step, and stage after stage, and the same is true for Am Yisrael. Each and every era has it’s own personality and mission, it’s own special and vital contribution to make to the life of the nation. Yet, we must understand, that in truth we are more than a chain of people and generations. Beneath the surface, in our souls, within the singular collective soul of Shechina-Knesset Yisrael, lies the essence of all of us. The reason our sages use the term Knesset Yisrael is because the word knesset means “gathered together,” and within the transcendent ever-presence of Knesset Yisrael is gathered together every Jewish soul, and every generation.
The core message of the seder night is that there exists the opportunity to connect to an expansive plain of existence; to a far deeper dimension of identity that exists within every Jew, by virtue of sharing a larger, common identity with all other Jews, and simultaneously with all Israel. And with this, to then naturally feel that I personally left Egypt because we did, and we are I are woven into the same common fabric of life.
The primary fruit that blossoms from grasping this bigger, deeper reality of identity, is that suddenly our hearts sense that our personal mission is far bigger than we ever imagined. When my essence, potential, and vision as a Jew seamlessly overlaps Knesset Yisrael, everything is elevated, and life takes on a whole other quality of being.
Like the realization of a doctor that holds the life of another human being in his hands, or like a unit commander that feels in his bones that his mission, and the mission of the country and the nation are one: that’s each of us on the night of the seder. That’s what is within our reach on the night of the seder; the transcenedent—far-bigger-than-my-life—realization that my purpose, and the purpose of Am Yisrael, are one. With this realization, and with this profound connection to our Self that soars far beyond our self, our lives take on an entirely different quality.
When we touch that place in our soul that is connected to the essence of the nation; when we touch that place in our soul that truly did leave Egypt, then we are in touch with that place in our soul that is trans-historical, that is a living part of a remarkable past, and a brilliant, shared future.
From Mitzrayim to—
L’shana Haba B’Yerusholayim.
The Yerusholayim that every day is growing,
together with the nation that has returned home.
And blossoming …
Into Yerusholayim Ha’bnuya.
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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf