The Power and Limits of Personalizing the Passover Story

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / March 22, 2023

A collection of haggadot atop a blue and white polka dot tablecloth. Memory in Jewish tradition is not an objective recalling of historical events. Rather, it is about personally engaging with narratives from the past to glean wisdom, receive guidance, and, at times, hear a call to action for how to go about our lives and navigate our world today. 

The Passover seder is one of the best examples. 

The Ashkenazi haggadah famously states that “[i]n every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as if they had come forth out of Egypt,” while the Sephardic haggadah says, “[i]n every generation, one is obligated to show oneself as if they had come forth out of Egypt.” These are similar concepts asking seder guests to approach the story of the Exodus with a personal lens. However, the Ashkenazi version focuses on engaging with the story through our perspective while the Sephardic version focuses on engaging with the story through our actions. For more on the differences between the two, I highly recommend this article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs. 

In both versions, though, it is a mitzvah – a commandment – to connect with the Exodus story so personally that we can authentically place ourselves in it. Why? Because the book of Exodus says that, when asked why we even observe Passover, we must answer: “It’s because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).  

At the seder, we are to think about the experience of moving from slavery to freedom as it relates to us in our lifetimes. The “us” here can mean each of us as individuals, the unique participants at any given seder, or the Jewish people as a whole. 

A page of a haggadah. Sit with the implications of this for a minute. This is a highly personal, weighty, and even political topic for the dinner table! But, that’s the point.

As someone who grew up attending seders where guests read out loud from the haggadah, but didn’t really stop to apply the messages to ourselves and our communities, I’ve spent a lot of time as an adult thinking about how to internalize and apply the script of the haggadah at my own seder table. 

Along the way, I’ve asked myself: Is this kind of personalization of the Exodus story fully possible? To what end? And, more recently, I’ve asked: Are there limits to being able to truthfully say that I or we understand what it means to feel freed from enslavement?

To digress for a moment, those of you who are familiar with GatherDC know that we say that a fulfilling, sustainable approach to one’s Jewish life can be approached as “RAM.” Relevant, Active, and Meaningful. We believe that Jewish tradition has the capacity to be relevant – to helpfully speak to the circumstances of our lives today. It can be active –  lived out in a rich variety of impactful, tangible ways. And, it can definitely be meaningful – positively influencing us personally and communally for the better. High expectations, for sure! 

This is what I think the Passover seder is asking of us – to make the Exodus story “RAM” by engaging with it as both an ancestral and personal journey of moving from a state of slavery to a state of freedom in ways that can encourage and transform us. 

A Seder plate with a sunflower in the center. So, back to my earlier questions. How can we personalize the Exodus story, and to what end? 

First and foremost, we can spend time throughout the seder meal talking about how we feel metaphorically bound in ways we don’t want to be – mentally, emotionally, spiritually or materially, for example –  while discussing how to cultivate and act on the possibility that things can and do change. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “narrow place.” It is a metaphor for constriction, stuckness, and the inability to make our own choices. We all go through this.

Maybe this year, there are those who already have their own redemption stories of how they made it through their own narrow places that would be helpful for others to hear. Maybe we feel called to act differently toward ourselves and others as a result of this conversation. 

The same can be true when applied to the feelings and experiences within Jewish community in any given year. And, to have this kind of honest interaction with others, supported by a timeless narrative and symbolic rituals offered by the haggadah and the seder plate? It makes for a truly meaningful seder night.

But, is there a limit to how much we can say that we know what it’s like to be enslaved and go free? It depends on who we are and who’s at our seder table.

Retelling the Exodus with its themes of slavery and freedom should also bring up examples of physical slavery, forced labor, human rights abuses, or other kinds of suffering we and those at our particular seder might not have any personal experience with, but that we know are problems in our society. This is where nuance in the haggadah’s message about seeing ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the Israelites can be crucial. 

An open page of the New American Haggadah, lit by sunlight. To “see” and “show” ourselves as if we have been brought out of Egypt does not mean to say that we can actually understand all forms of suffering and what it’s like to be freed from that. We can do our best to understand another’s story, but we’ll never fully know what it’s like to be them. 

I believe this to be true not only as individuals, but also as Jews (again, depending on who we are). While we may have familial, ancestral and of course, the Torah’s ancient stories of persecution and enslavement, there is unique context to each of those stories. That context is a powerful point of connection, but also the very place where our knowledge of other groups of peoples’ lived experiences of oppression is inevitably limited. 

Despite what it may seem on the surface, the seder is not about performing a reality we don’t understand. That belittles the specificity and reality of someone else’s experience. To say that we truly “get” the harshness of slavery by eating the marror, the bitter herbs, or by dipping a piece of lettuce into salt water to taste the tears of enslavement is taking the idea of empathy too far. The use of the seder text and rituals is about being prompted to curiosity and reflection, which has to include knowing where the limits of our experiences are and where we have a lot more to learn about how to help bring about various forms of liberation. 

What I believe Passover teaches us through the commandment to “see” or “show” ourselves as having left Egypt is to honor and make space for our own stories, whatever they may be, while drawing spiritual, ethical, and historical connections to those who are facing hardships that differ from ours. The follow-up work after the seder is to then allow those connections to spur us to learning, partnership, and positive action. 

The Israelite legacy of liberation from slavery is a powerful one. I’m glad we give ourselves the time and space to revisit and remember the story in this significant way. This year, I want to offer an intention I hold myself to as well: to use our Passover seders to unlock the personal places where we each strive to find more agency, hope, and goodness in our own lives while understanding where we must ask more questions about the experiences we can never fully know. 

An open page of the New American Haggadah.

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