Pessah on My Mind, by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

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In his book “Crowds and Power,” the Nobel Prize winning Sephardic author, Elias Canetti, writes of the tremendous diversity among Jews. He theorizes: “One is driven to ask in what respect these people remain Jews; what makes them into Jews; what is the ultimate nature of the bond they feel when they say "I am a Jew"....This bond...is the Exodus from Egypt.” Canetti suggests that the Israelites’ formative experience as a vast crowd leaving Egypt is the key to understanding the nature of Jewish peoplehood. As long as Jews—however different they are from each other—share historical memories of the Exodus from Egypt, they continue to identify as members of one people. We are bound together by the shared experience of redemption.

When we imagine the Exodus, we naturally envision a huge crowd of Israelites hastily leaving Egypt. When we recount the story of the Exodus in the Passover Haggada, we are reminded that the redemption was a group experience of great magnitude that has shaped the destiny of our people for all generations.

Yet, the Haggada does not focus only on the “vast crowd” experience, but conscientiously strives to personalize the story to the level of each individual. “In every generation one must see him/herself as though he/she personally had come forth from Egypt.” The Haggada tells stories about particular lessons taught by individual rabbis. It teaches that we have not fulfilled our obligation unless each of us speaks of Pessah, Matsah and Maror.

And, famously, the Haggada includes instructions on dealing with children with different aptitudes and interests. The challenge is to feel and transmit the vast group Exodus experience of antiquity on an individual level.

Thus, while the Haggada celebrates national liberation, it also provides a theme of personal liberation. While each participant is taught to identify with the masses of ancient Israelites who were redeemed from bondage, each is also encouraged to relate to our tradition as a unique individual.

Each person brings his/her specific talents, sensitivities and knowledge. Each needs to find his/her own way of relating to and individualizing the Exodus message.

Albert Einstein taught: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Each person has a specific set of qualities. If allowed to develop in accord with these qualities, a person can live a happy and fulfilling life. But if a person is stifled or misled, he/she may live a frustrating and unsatisfactory life. So many people are diverted from meaningful lives because they live by definitions and standards that others have imposed on them. They strive to meet expectations of others that may, in fact, be inappropriate for them.

In transmitting religious traditions from generation to generation, the elders need to be tuned in to the specific aptitudes and sensibilities of the younger members of the family and community. One formula does not work for everyone. On the contrary, the best teachers are those who can individualize their lessons so that each child/student feels personally engaged.

The Haftara on Shabbat HaGadol is drawn from the book of Malachi. The prophet foresees the day when “He shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents (Malachi 3:24).” It is profoundly significant that Malachi envisions a messianic time that begins with parents turning their hearts to their children. We might ordinarily have thought that the ideal is for children to listen to parents. Malachi—while surely agreeing that children should heed their parents’ teachings—suggests that it is up to parents to take the initiative in maintaining or restoring inter-generational relationships. The elders must strive to understand the younger members of the family/community on the latters’ terms.

“In every generation one must see him/herself as though he/she had come forth from Egypt.” To internalize the power of this message, we envision the vast crowd of Israelites who experienced the Exodus first hand. We identify with them and feel part of their peoplehood. At the same time, though, we envision the unique talents and aspirations of each member of the family and community. The goal is to raise all of us to a high level of understanding, solidarity and love.