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A 21st Century Exodus

A 21st Century Exodus

Passover

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We are all in Egypt, and we need to get out. This, in a word, is the central message of Passover. It is also key to understanding how we should see ourselves and our relations with others, particularly those who seem different than ourselves.

“In every generation,” the sages of the Talmud instruct, “each person must see themselves as if they themselves have come out of Egypt.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812, founder of Chabad) takes this principle even further, emphasizing we must see ourselves as newly redeemed from Egypt each day.

There was a time, thousands of years ago, when the whole of the future Jewish people were slaves in Egypt. In the course of our history, we have lived under other oppressive and freedom-denying regimes. But today, we are fortunate in that the great majority of our people live in freedom. What does it mean that we each have to “go out of Egypt” every day of our lives?

The chassidic masters explain that the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitsrayim, means “boundaries” and “limits.” Our lives are constricted and defined by many limitations. But our truest humanity is expressed by moving beyond these limitations, and actualizing our core identity, our soul. Each person’s deepest and defining life moments involve breaking out and overcoming challenges in order to express their soul, the image of G‑d—the true nature of their identity.

The idea of leaving Egypt each day teaches us more. Grandiose events, such as the Exodus, may only happen once in a lifetime. We feel the powerful transcendent jump over our limitations at such times. But everyday life provides countless opportunities to leave our personal, more subtle “Egypts.” Every human being has challenges and limitations, both great and small. Each day, we must look deeply into ourselves to find the inspiration and empowerment to grow and overcome our boundaries.

A litmus test of our ability to overcome our own limitations is in how we look at people who are different than us, who have different limitations than ours. Do we see them first as the other, in a different category than us, and only second, as fellow human beings? Do we treat them in some ways as if they were not redeemable, as if only our own limitations could be transcended?

Our world is defined by separation. We are separated from the Exodus by thousands of years. We are separated from each other by our physical bodies and egos. Passover inspires us to imagine moving beyond these limitations, to touch – and then act— from that soul-stance of freedom. To move beyond our differences, beyond the visible and the invisible things that separate us.

True, the exodus from Egypt was in the past. True, each person is different. But whether the other’s limitation is hidden or more obvious, the Torah’s message is clear. We must imagine ourselves united as one to achieve full freedom and transcendence, the inspiring potential we read about on the Seder night.

“Inclusion” is a term that has recently entered into the lexicon of public awareness as the objective to embrace and meaningfully include people with disabilities in our communities. But inclusion is an age-old Jewish value. Many centuries ago, the sages of Israel declared “Love your fellow as yourself” to be the central pillar of Judaism. We need only rise above the artificial boundaries which delineate and separate us to discover our essential unity.

We may have been afraid to fully imagine, to dream, to think big. Passover night, the birthday of our people, is a special time for each of us to celebrate our own personal birth into freedom, and imagine ways to make our people more whole. We open the seder with, “Let all who need come and celebrate Passover,“ and then engage the four children, each so differently gifted, all of whom must find his or her place at the table.

And even more: we must seek and make welcome those who have not yet come to the table, to be attentive to what they need so that they feel comfortable and will want to be there, celebrating joyfully.

Only then will we know that we are truly free.

This is the first in a series of articles produced in partnership by the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) and The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI).

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