Judy Shapiro’s D’var Torah for the first day of Pesach, 5766

We are told in the Hagadah that we are to tell the story of the deliverance out of Egypt as if each of us was ourselves redeemed out of slavery. We are to personalize the telling of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, not as history but as an autobiography. But how many of us have ever felt the degree of slavery that contrasts with freedom so dramatically? We may have second-hand experience of slavery: Certainly we have in our lifetimes seen the immigration of the Soviet Jews from behind the Iron Curtain, whose deliverance out of bondage was very dramatic, sometimes occurring overnight on an airplane ride en route to Israel or the US. We have also seen the Ethiopian deliverance, with the dramatic, clandestine airlifts of Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. There again, people went from darkness to light, virtually overnight. And most of us here in this room know personally people who survived the Holocaust: they experienced a moment of liberation from the camps, or the moment when the war ended and they could come out of hiding or prison and into a free life, albeit a very difficult one.

But aside from these dramatic instances, how many of us have ourselves experienced the severe degree of slavery necessary to fully appreciate the sudden liberation from it? Perhaps an addicted person feels himself enslaved to his addiction, and the completion of treatment may feel like liberation. But even then, there is a daily battle to maintain that freedom from slavery: not a gift from outside oneself, like the gift of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim that God gave to the Jewish people on the first Pesach. How then, can we practice this mandate of celebrating at the Seder with personal, autobiographical feeling?

Maybe there are some helpful clues in the seder itself: for example, why do we break the middle matza, only to put it away and not use it until much later?

Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes, "A key to freedom is to anticipate the future and make it real". This statement reminds us of a unique ability that we may take for granted: the power to affect change in our own lives. We make decisions daily that enable us to shape our own futures. We have to imagine our lives without the ability to do that: slaves, or prisoners, have no freedom to choose what to do daily, or on the broader scale, what course to take with their lives: what to study, or whether to study, what career to follow, whom to marry, where to live. Like breaking the middle matza and saving it for later, the free person recognizes that we make a choice now, what to do later. And most of the time, we have the power to carry out that plan.

Another hint in the seder about our own personal versions of slavery can be found in the rachtzah, or washing of the hands before the meal. By washing our hands, we demonstrate our determination to be clean, not to be enslaved by the idol worship of greed, the pressures of material gain and social status, the unhealthy parts of popular culture from which we strive to distance ourselves. 

And the Matza itself offers another clue: even though we may feel "enslaved" by the work needed to prepare for Pesach, we try to remember that the refusal to eat leaven symbolizes the desire to be pure. The simplicity and purity of flour, water and 18 minutes contrasts with all the complications of the material world, with its political correctness and moral equivalencies.

Finally, when we end our Seder with the wish "L’shana HaBa’ah b’Yerushalayim", we see one more hint of our personal participation in Yetzi’at Mitzrayim: the process of the liberation from bondage is still incomplete. It is still in process, from our ancestors who actually left Mitzrayim, straight through to us today. We are still working on becoming free from the bondage we experienced then: it’s as if one long Yetzi’at Mitzrayim is occurring, and we are just the current generation, the current link in the long, unbroken chain of the Jewish people, actively engaged in the transformation from slaves to a free, independent and holy people.

Chag kasher v’sameach!