The Seder is, in many ways, a study in contradictions. We recline like aristocrats while eating the bread of the poor. We are required to see ourselves as actually having participated in the Exodus from slavery to freedom, while proclaiming “This year we are slaves.” The importance of the Seder is not just as a means for remembering an historical event that is the very bedrock of our existence as a people; it is an affirmation that the Exodus from Egypt is an ongoing process. It is something we live every day as a nation and as individuals.
On the one hand, we celebrate our Exodus from slavery to freedom. Yet we begin the Seder by proclaiming, “This year we are slaves.”
The past 90 years have been an era of destruction and rebirth for our people. The horrors of the Shoah, the destruction of the Holocaust, threatened our very existence. They were quickly followed by the rebirth of the State of Israel and the reunification of Jerusalem. In what is the blink of an eye in historic terms, we have gone from one of the most tragic chapters in history to one of the most glorious. Israel is prosperous and powerful. Opportunities for Jews in America abound. Torah is being learned on a high level by more people than ever before. The march from the “valley of the shadow of death” that was the Holocaust to “the built-up Jerusalem is like a city united together” is the Exodus of our time. It is not a historical memory. It is something that we, our parents, and our grandparents have lived through.
While the achievements of our times are extraordinary, great challenges remain. Our most dangerous enemies are perilously close to acquiring the world’s most dangerous weapon. Antisemitism is rearing its ugly head in the halls of Congress, in the towers of academia, and even among the most respected human rights organizations. Millions of our youth are abandoning our traditions and our values.
When we look at the challenges facing us, we can easily despair. The Seder comes to teach us that we should see ourselves as having left Egypt. We have witnessed G-d’s miracles and He has lifted us to great heights.
When we look at the Jewish people’s strong position of today, we can easily become complacent in the belief that we have triumphed. The Seder comes to tell us, “This year we are slaves.” The Exodus is not yet complete. There are many struggles and challenges still to be overcome.
What is true of us as a nation is true of us as individuals, as well. We all have achievements of which we are justly proud. Yet we all have experienced anguish and heartbreak. We sit in comfort in our beautiful homes yet remain enslaved by some of our basest passions. The electronic devices that can be used to study Torah can also be used to view the vilest forms of pornography. We need to ask ourselves: Do we rule over our jobs, our investments, our electronic devices, and our passions – or do they rule over us?
The Seder reminds us that it is G-d who made our achievements possible, and it is by serving Him that we can free ourselves from the demons within us.
We are commanded to search for chametz by candlelight in the darkest crevices and corners because it is only by shining a bright light on what is deep within us that we can become truly free.
On Pesach, the festival of freedom, we begin to count 49 days to Shavuos, the holy day that celebrates our acceptance of the Torah. We count the days because the holy days are linked. At the Burning Bush, G-d told Moshe that the Jewish people merited redemption from Egypt because we were destined to receive the Torah at that very spot.
It is no coincidence that the days that commemorate the seminal events of our time – Holocaust Memorial Day, Israel Independence Day, and Jerusalem Reunification Day – take place during the time when we count the days from the Exodus from Egypt to receiving the Torah. Those events were milestone on a journey.
We are commanded to see ourselves as having personally participated in the Exodus from Egypt because that is, in fact, true. The journey of 3,500 years ago is the journey of today. We celebrate what G-d has enabled us to achieve, while committing ourselves to overcoming the challenges that lie ahead. The journey continues as we travel from the darkness of an Egypt, where we are threatened by our enemies and enslaved by our passions to the bright light of the Promised Land, where we live in peace and freedom as we become G-d’s partners in creation by building a world based on His ideals and values.
By Manny Behar