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The Haggada is a retelling of the Book of Exodus from the first seven verses, when Jewish People descend into the land of Egypt, to the final five verses, when God's Presence descends to dwell among the Jewish People. Along the way we experience incredible growth at the outset, followed by the bitterness of enslavement and infanticide, followed by God's wondrous miracles in Egypt and at the Sea, and concluding with God's speaking to us at Sinai, coming to dwell with us in the Tabernacle, and promising to ultimately bring us to and join us in our permanent home in the Land of Israel. This story is the master story of our people. It is the spiritual pilgrimage that we lead, and through which the Jewish People journey, on Passover night.
But our master story is not just a story of our biblical past that we retell and re-experience in the present. This story is also a metaphor of our people's journey throughout history and of our own individual life's journey. In the Maggid section of the Seder, the Haggada uses the expression "in each and every generation" only two times: once concerning the historical experience of the Jewish people and once concerning each individual's personal life experience. Regarding the historical experience of the Jewish People, the Haggada tells us:
This promise [of redemption] has sustained our ancestors and us. For not only one enemy has risen against us to annihilate us, rather in each and every generation men rise against us to annihilate us. But the Holy One, blessed be God, saves us from their hand.
Regarding our own individual life experience, the Haggada states:
In each and every generation it is a person's duty to regard him or herself as though he or she personally had come out of Egypt.... It was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One redeemed from slavery; we, too, were redeemed with them, as it is written: "God took us out from there so that God might take us to the land that God had sworn to our ancestors."
Together, these two paragraphs are telling us that the biblical story of our ancestors' Exodus from Egypt has a valuable lesson to teach both each and every generation of Jews and each and every individual human being. The first message is sobering: that our paths and our journeys, no matter how successful at the start, no matter how well planned or prepared, can often take detours into dangerous, uncharted, and unanticipated territory. Any of us may wake up one day and find ourselves in a totally transformed environment where we suddenly experience oppressive bondage and an urgent threat to our own or our family's/people's very existence. Evil is a reality that can erupt without a moment's notice. That has been the recurring experience of the Jewish People throughout our existence, and that is the existential human condition of each and every human being since time immemorial.
What keeps our people and each of us sane in such a potentially dangerous and absurd world is our relationship with God and with our master story of redemption. Our trust that God oversees a just world, that over the course of generations--if not in any single given lifetime--the wicked get their just desert and the righteous receive their deserved reward, keeps us going even when the reality around us seems to shout otherwise.
If the Haggada's first message is sobering, its second message is inspiring: reliving our ancestors' biblical experience, as we do each and every year at the Seder, reminds us that despite the evil all around us, redemption too can come in the blink of an eye. Even when the odds seem stacked against us, our situation can undergo a radical change for the better. The world is not only dark; it is also full of light. God's promises to God's people of ultimate redemption and our internalization of our people's remarkable story of the Exodus instill in us the hope and the courage to go forward even when chaos and darkness seem poised to engulf us.
Those who have suffered a terrifying experience in their own life or in the lives of their community and have survived to tell the tale and live a vital and vibrant life again have led a personal version of the Passover journey. Those of our ancestors, like my own parents, who lost their families during the period of the Holocaust and yet survived and came to the shores of America to raise families and build meaningful new lives as American Jews, have traveled the Passover road from slavery to freedom; those of us from the New York or Washington, D.C., area who were directly affected by the events of September 11, 2001, or who witnessed the tragic events in Israel of the past several years, and who have resolutely chosen to continue to live their lives to the fullest have retold in their own souls the essence of the Passover story; and others, who have had to fight a battle against a life-threatening disease and have been fortunate enough to be given a second lease on life, or who have had to overcome personal tragedies or deep, interpersonal disappointments to begin life anew, know in their very flesh and blood of this journey from oppression to redemption that the Seder teaches us.
The Jewish People's journey from slavery and oppression to freedom and redemption is the journey we are all destined to travel in one way or another in our lives on this planet. Like our biblical ancestors, we too often struggle to free ourselves from those physical, relational, or psychological forces that try to enslave and hurt us, to defeat them so they no longer constitute a threat to us or to our loved ones, and then seek to find the type of personal meaning, interpersonal relationship, and permanence of place that our people call redemption. The biblical story, our people's story, and our own personal stories are one story--the story of "slavery to freedom, grief to joy... darkness to light, and oppression to redemption." Together, they form a chut hameshulash, a "triple helix," which King Solomon teaches us "does not easily unravel" (Eccles. 4:12). May our stories and journeys bring hope for our generation and meaning for the generations that preceded us, and light the path for the generations that follow, until the final redemption of God's people and God's world.n
Excerpt from Leading the Passover Journey: The Seder's Meaning Revealed, the Haggadah's Story Retold 2005 Nathan Laufer (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091, www.jewishlights.com.