Seeing Ourselves as if We Came from Egypt

There’s a special Sephardi custom at the Seder that I love. The participants dress up as if they were leaving Egypt. After Yahatz, the breaking of the middle matzah, the afikoman is tied in a large napkin, given to one of the children at the Passover Seder table, and then the child slings the napkin over his or her shoulders. The leader of the Passover Seder then asks a series of three questions to the child: 1. “From where have you come?” The child answers: “I have come from Egypt”. 2. The Passover Seder leader then asks: “Where are you going?” The child answers: “I am going to Jerusalem”. Finally, the Passover Seder leader asks: “What are you taking with you?” The child then points to the sack or napkin full of matzah.

Why do such a ritual? Because we are commanded at the Seder to reenact the Exodus from Egypt. The past two nights we read in our Haggadot בכל דור ודור חיב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים; In every generation one must see his/herself as if s/he came from Egypt. Interestingly, Maimonides’ Haggadah has a different word written in: להראות. This changes the meaning to “in every generation, one must show him/herself as if s/he came from Egypt.”

Often we believe that dressing in costume is for children and connected to only Purim, yet I assert that it also enhances what Passover is truly about. We try to imagine what it was like to be a slave by symbolically eating foods connected to our ancestors: maror to connect to their bitterness, salt water to feel their tears, even matzah to show the rush they were in to get out. Outside of that, however, we do little to connect with our ancestors’ narrative besides reading a nice Midrashic work about their story. Imagine if we actually dressed like them, pretending to be on our journey from Egypt to The Promised Land.

I always try to teach something connected to the holiday so that we can add to our current practices. While the Sedarim have been concluded for 5777, it is not too late to find avenues through which to connect to the narrative of our ancestors. One way I like to do it is talking to someone who did not grow up as fortunate as many of us did, who had to endure great pain, suffering and hardship just to arrive in this country-and once here to make a living. It helps gain perspective on how truly fortunate we are to be living freely in a country where Jews on the whole are respected and which is in many ways a meritocracy. By seeing where we came from: a country where our ancestors had to build pyramids under the crack of a whip, to make bricks by collecting their own straw, to later flee for their lives across harsh, desert terrain not knowing if they would make it or from where their next meal would come-that to me is seeing ourselves as if we were the ones who came from Egypt. Egypt means מצרים, the place of narrows, a place where we are restricted from reaching our full potential. To think that our loved ones not too far back endured a personal state of מצרים and had to fight for everything they had/have is to recognize what it is like to leave Egypt.

As we continue to joyously celebrate Passover, “The Feast of Freedom,” let us not do so blindly but rather by recognizing from whence we came and to where we are headed. May we take some time to reflect on our parents and grandparents’ stories, recognizing both where we are at and what we are going to do to keep from returning to an Egypt. Let us see ourselves as coming from Mitzrayim, the place of narrows, going to Yerushalayim, the city which brings peace, and joyously partaking in our holiday with family and friends.

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