I was looking in my parsha archives for what to write about this week and came across this little gem. It was from 2000, a good 19 years ago so I am sure you don’t remember it. You will quickly see that it is dated somewhat because I write about my son Moishe as a seven-year-old. I have expanded it a bit since I would like to think that I might be a better writer these days.
In the Hagadah, we read that in each and every generation, one is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she had personally come out of Egypt. This line has bothered commentaries throughout the ages for how realistic is this requirement given that we have not had the Exodus experience personally? We all know that when we have an intense experience – good or bad – another person cannot fully appreciate it unless they have had a similar or identical experience.
My father who was a Holocaust survivor used to always say that one who has not been through it could never imagine what is was like and I think we could all agree to that. So similarly how could we be expected to feel like we were slaves, to feel the daily oppression, the bondage, the inability to live a free life and then the subsequent redemption, if we have not had a similar Exodus from Egypt happening in our lives? I am sure some have been redeemed from some very difficult situations, but for most of us who have grown up in the freedom and luxury of the United States, Canada or Britain, it is a foreign concept.
So allow me to illustrate how this might be accomplished or at least understood. My son Moishy is a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. One day his friend at school asked him why the Florida Panthers are not his favorite team. “My dad is from New York but I am not a Rangers fan, so what if your dad is from Toronto, you grow up here and should be a Panthers fan like me” he tells my son. Perplexed at how to deal with this challenge to his love and identity, Moishy asked me how he should answer his little buddy. So I explained to him the difference. To his dad who grew up in New York, Hockey is a game; to Moishy’s dad who grew up in Toronto – Hockey is a tradition. For them, it is just another sport like so many others they follow like baseball or basketball. But for Canadians, hockey is more akin to a religion, and just like a religion it gets passed down from one generation to the next.
We all know that memory is crucial to the identity of a person and a nation. The tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease is that there is no awareness by one of the parties of that history that created the relationship. All the memories of the thousands of experiences, events, shared emotions and moments together that created the love and bond are lost. And because relationships by definition are a two way street – the relationship in a large sense is gone. There is still intense love for the person, but there is little relationship since one party has had its memory erased.
Similarly, on a national basis, without a connection to the defining moments that have made up that nation and created it, without being part of the ongoing experiences of that people, then there is no relationship to the peoplehood of one’s past. This is why it’s crucial for Jews to visit Israel – it instantly connects us to our glorious past and history. It is why one of the first things I teach to my JWRP brothers after the Israel trip is A Crash Course in Jewish History. It gives people a sense of who they are and from whence they came.
The Haggadah knows that we cannot fully experience the miracles that the Israelites did 3500 years ago. But that is not the point. Seeing yourself as coming out of Egypt is not in the experience but in the identification that you are part of the continuum of that experience. That you are part and parcel of the Jewish nation and a crucial entity in its continuation and mission in the world.
It is no accident that Hockey Night in Canada will often include historical videos in its pregame montages (here is one of my favourites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vczq0HbgEZo). They know that tapping into history is key for the game to go on, and for fans to connect to it. Jewish tradition has understood the same all along. Our life and people is a montage of thousands of years of amazing and miraculous event. It began before Egypt with the forefathers and mothers, became defined in Egypt and Sinai and Eretz Yisrael and continued ever since – during the high points and during the dark days – for thousands of years until today.
This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first of the month of Nissan – Pesach is two weeks away. It’s time for the playoffs to begin. It’s time to make your own montage of Jewish history stretching back to Egypt, and to pass it on to your children. Let the games begin, or better yet, let the games continue.
All the world’s indeed a stage
And we are merely players
Performers and portrayers…
Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme