The first time I led a Pesach seder I was a junior in college. The Hillel rabbi only wanted to lead one seder that year so he asked for a student to lead the seder on the second night. I was president of Hillel that year and something in me (insanity??) spurred me to volunteer. He sat down with me a few days before Pesach, went through the Haggadah with me and wished me luck. That second night I put on a tie and jacket (what else would I wear) and stood in front of dozens of students and some community people and gave it my all. How was the seder? Well . . . we need not talk about that here.
Thirty years after that experience we have arrived at Pesach, the Yom Tov that celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from the tyranny of Egyptian slavery to freedom. One of the most fascinating aspects of Jewish tradition is the calendar year. While indeed many of our holidays do recall historical events, our observances of them are not mere commemoration events, but rather opportunities to re-live the event itself in some way. Sitting in a sukkah is supposed to remind us of our Biblical ancestors who sat in sukkot during their sojourn through the desert. We stay up all night learning Torah on Shavuot to bring us back to that spectacular revelatory experience at Sinai when the Jewish people received the Torah.
On Monday night Jews around the world will sit down at the seder, whose structure helps us re-live that experience. The Maggid section of the Haggadah is designed to bring us through this event. We begin with “Avadim Hayinu – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt . . .” and over the course of what seems to be a long period of time we tell the story of how our ancestors were idol worshippers, but Avraham realized there was only One G-d in the world, we talk about the Jewish people going to Egypt and becoming enslaved and crying out to that G-d. We describe the plagues and empty our cups of just a bit of wine. Toward the end we list all the wonderful things HaShem has done for us through the singing of Dayyenu. Then, just before the second cup of wine, we recite the blessing of Geulah, Redemption. Finally we eat the matzah, the maror, the Hillel sandwich and commence with a delicious meal.
There are so many lessons to be learned from Pesach, so many ideas on which to focus. One thing my Hillel rabbi mentioned to me was the notion that each person has their own personal Egypt for which they need an exodus. Every person has challenges of some kind, things to which we become slaves and prevent us from becoming who we really want to be. The experience of the exodus was a challenge as the people found themselves caught between the Egyptians and the Reed Sea. With inspiration, through Moshe and Nachson ben Aminadav, the Jewish people went forward and overcame that obstacle and found themselves as free people on the other side. What will inspire us, who will encourage us to push though the challenge and free us from our personal enslavement?
Matzah is the perfect symbol for this idea. It simultaneously represents slavery, as matzah was the food the Jewish people ate while enslaved. It also stands for redemption for the Torah describes that the dough did not have time to rise since the Jews needed to leave Egypt quickly. May the matzah we eat remind us that we need not be enslaved to those ideas, those actions that hinder our true potential for greatness. May that matzah inspire us to move towards our own personal exodus. The Jewish people have become a great people since that moment at the Sea. For each of us, greatness is within our reach.
Wishing you all a Hag Kasher v’ Samayach, a wonderful, joyous Pesach.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger