The Bread Our Forefathers Ate in the Land of Egypt
More than a mere commemoration of past history, a Jewish holiday is an event to be personally experienced and relived. Every Jewish holiday has a contemporary message for every Jew in every time and place. This is particularly true of Pesach. As our Sages declare, “In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally left Egypt.”
This is the purpose of the Seder on Pesach eve: to provide every individual with an opportunity to experience an exodus from his own personal house of bondage.
The opening of the Seder expresses this concept by introducing the recitation of the story of the Exodus with the declaration, Hei lachma anya — “Behold the bread of affliction.” In his Shulchan Aruch, the Alter Rebbe notes:
Those who are meticulous take care to say K’ha lachma or Ha k’lachma (“This is like the bread of affliction”), since [the matzah we are eating] is not the actual bread our forefathers ate.
In his edition of the Haggadah, however, the Alter Rebbe chooses the wording, Hei lachma anya. This emphasizes that the Seder is intended to move us to the point where we ourselves experience a liberation from slavery, and view the matzah before us as “the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.”
“In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally left Egypt”1
Though we may never have been in Egypt, nor experienced actual slavery, redemption can be real for us, for, as chassidic thought explains, Egypt is not only a geographical location but also a state of mind. In fact the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim , is almost identical to the word meitzarim , which means straits or limitations. In other words, our personal exodus from Egypt involves self-transcendence, lifting ourselves out of our natural limitations.
We each possess a soul, a spark of G‑d. And, like G‑d Himself, this spark is infinite and unbounded. On the personal level, Egypt symbolizes those influences and forces which confine and limit this spiritual potential.
The nature of this personal Egypt varies according to one’s character and degree of refinement. One person’s Egypt may be defined by his selfish desires and natural drives; another’s, by the bounds of intellect and reason. There is even an “Egypt of holiness,” a state in which a person committed to spiritual growth, restricts his potential for advancement, accepting his natural limitations as permanent.
All of these Egypts confine our infinite G‑dly nature. Leaving Egypt means leaping over all these (and any other) barriers and constraints, and bringing our infinite spiritual potential to the surface.
A personal experience of redemption affects the totality of our divine service. As long as a person lives within his personal Egypt, as long as the infinite potential of his soul is denied expression, he will perceive the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos as external to himself, separate from the essence of his being. When a person relives the Exodus and uncovers his essential G‑dly nature, he develops a deeper connection with the Torah.
Experiencing a personal exodus from Egypt thus becomes “the great foundation and strong pillar of our Torah and our faith,” with relevance extending far beyond the time of the Pesach celebration and applying to every moment of our lives. When the Exodus is understood this way, every dimension of Jewish conduct and every mitzvah a person performs becomes a step out of Egypt and an expression of his inner G‑dly potential, an opportunity to realize his true self.
To emphasize that the Exodus from Egypt is an ongoing experience, the Alter Rebbe omitted the passage beginning Chasal Siddur Pesach (“The Pesach Seder has been concluded”) from his text of the Haggadah. Similarly, in token of the continuing relevance of the Exodus, we recall the redemption from Egypt in our daily prayers, both morning and evening.
A Turning Point in Spiritual History
The continued significance of the Exodus from Egypt can be viewed from another perspective. The Torah says of the Jewish people, “They are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.” The redemption from Egypt and the subsequent experience of receiving the Torah established the identity of the Jewish people as “servants of G‑d” and not “servants of servants.” After leaving Egypt, they could never again be subject to the same kind of servitude.
The Maharal of Prague explains that the freedom achieved through the Exodus transformed the essential nature of our people. Through the Exodus, we acquired the nature of free men. Despite subsequent conquests and subjugation by other nations, the fundamental nature of the Jewish people has not changed. Our freedom is maintained only because, in a spiritual sense, G‑d is constantly taking us out of Egypt. The miracle of the redemption is thus not an event of the past, but a constant occurrence in our daily lives.
This ongoing experience of redemption that is realized throughout our lives is intensified by reliving the Exodus during the Pesach holiday. May the personal redemption experienced by every individual at that time hasten the redemption of our entire people and lead to the fulfillment of the hope expressed at the climax of the Haggadah, LeShanah HaBaah biYerushalayim (“Next year in Jerusalem!”), with the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our days.
Adapted from the Sichos of the First Days of Pesach, 5732; Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, Yud-Tes Kislev and Purim, 5727