The Borders of Egypt

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29 Mar 2007

BoardersIn a few nights we will be sitting around our Seder tables drinking copious amounts of wine or grape juice and eating fragile, dry matzos with a smattering of horseradish or lettuce. We will have a beautiful table surrounded by family and guests dressed in their festive best. The highlight of the evening will undoubtedly be the conversation, the dialogue of the hagadda. We will tell over the story of the exodus as it has been told every Pesach for thousands of years by millions of Jewish families in hundreds of countries.

But at some point after the karpas has been eaten, the afikomen hidden, and the mah nishtana asked, we may begin to wonder when we’re going to get to that delicious pot roast whose aroma is tantalizing our senses, or at least reach the matza marathon. Underlying this thought is the question “what does this have to do with me?” Yes, it is great that our forefathers were taken out of slavery some 3,300 years and we should be thankful to G-d for that most magnanimous of acts. But how do I apply that to my life here in the USA, where the NBA and reality TV are definitely more interesting than ancient Egyptians?

This is not a new question. As a matter of fact, this was asked as soon as the Haggadah was written and the answer was included in the text in a few places. The first time “we” appears in the haggadah is in the statement “had G-d not taken us out of Egypt then we, our children, and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” At the surface this seems strange because Pharaoh is long gone and with him the entire ancient Egyptian civilization. How would we still be slaves to an entity that is nonexistent?

“You are free to be as great as you dream of being”In order to understand this, let’s look at another reference to us in the Haggadah. In what is now usually sung as a song, we make the following statement “ela sheb’chol dor vador omdim aleinu….” in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, but Hashem saves us from their hands. Jews living in the West Bank with Katyusha rockets raining down on them, or those living in Iran, desperate to get out of a murderous regime, must certainly say these words with fervor. But what about us? What do we think of as we sit comfortably in our peaceful, suburban neighborhoods? Yes, we can think of them, but we lack the desperation they are experiencing. How can we make this into something more real for us?

Let’s try to delve a little deeper into what Mitzrayim (Egypt) was really all about. Through that we can come to comprehend what the slavery represented, and hopefully we will discover a way to make the exodus meaningful for us. The Hebrew word Mitzrayim has the same letters as the word meitzarim which means boundaries or limitations. The Sages tell us that a slave never escaped Egypt. This was not because they had soldiers patrolling every square foot of the border; rather the type of subjugation the slaves underwent didn’t end with physical servitude, but incorporated an element of psychological subjugation. The slave in Egypt couldn’t see any reality for himself other than his current state. He was stuck in the “borders” of limitation set up by the culture of Egypt, one that told you that whoever you were was exactly who you would continue to be with no chance of change.

This mentality is antithetical to the Torah approach. We believe that one is given free will and always has the ability to elevate himself above his current limitations, to burst out from the “borders” of his current state. When G-d took us out of Egypt the exemption from physical bondage was a minor part of the exodus, the major component was the freeing of our minds, the gift of our newfound ability to see beyond our current state to our world of possibility.

This explains the perplexing statement, “had G-d not taken us out of Egypt then we, our children, and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” It does not mean that we would necessarily still be in Egypt serving a man named Pharaoh, but rather, that we would still be trapped in the mind frame of Egyptian slaves, prisoners of a pattern which allows no room for growth or change.

With this new perception, we can understand that even in our generation, in our supposedly safe homes, we still have people rising up against us. The many who profess that a human is just a mechanism acting out whatever was solidified in his subconscious from ages 0-5, and that he can’t break out of it, the society that tells us that to sin is only natural and that it’s understandable because we can’t help ourselves. These are the people who are rising up against us because they limit our ability to grow and develop. These theories, so pervasive in our society, are the very ethos from which we were saved from at the exodus from Egypt.

So, in every generation, despite the fact that the popular notion may be one of reckless action, justified immorality and dishonesty, G-d takes us out of Egypt and gives us the Torah with its message of human ability. Its encouragement to transcend the shackles of our current state saves us from this danger of falling prey to these notions.

So, as you sip your steaming hot borscht, or drink that cup numero Quattro (#4), or even during the dialogue of the Haggadah, take a moment to step back and think about the fact that you are free to be as great as you dream of being. You are not shackled by your foibles, vices, or bad habits, but have the ability to overcome adversity and grow and change into a better and different person. Remember this timeless message of Pesach – the redemption not just from physical subjugation, but emancipation from emotional, psychological and spiritual barriers. L’shana Ha’ba B’Yerushalayim!

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.