Whether you believe it is a myth, the word of God, or somewhere in between, you can't deny that the Exodus is one of the most captivating and enduring stories in Western civilization. It spawned two blockbuster films and served as inspiration for numerous modern social justice movements. Passover is my favorite holiday largely for one of the reasons I chose to get involved in interfaith work: nothing is more compelling than a good story.
However, Jews are taught that the Exodus is more than a moving story or the personal narrative of our people. According to tradition, each of us personally stood at Sinai when we received the Ten Commandments. We are taught, "In every generation, one must see themselves as if they had personally left Egypt." When the movie "The Prince of Egypt" was first released, I remember visualizing my family singing, "When You Believe" and crossing the Red Sea with the cartoon Moses and Miriam. However, as I matured and understood how truly privileged I am, this task became much more complicated. During the Seder, I grew to recite, "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt" in a lethargic monotone chant, without truly connecting to the words.
I am a 20-year-old, American college student on a meal plan who feels separation anxiety when I'm away from my iPhone. How can I feel as if I were personally delivered from Egypt?
A few days ago, I read a heart-wrenching article by Nicholas Kristof describing Alissa, a girl my own age who escaped from the bondage of sex trafficking in the United States. When I consider her life, thinking of myself as an ancient Egyptian slave awaiting liberation seems next to impossible and insulting.
However, redemption stories like Alissa's also help me connect to my faith and understand my role in the Exodus. From my experience, a college campus is a unique venue for these teachable moments. In my classrooms, we study and critically analyze the Arab Spring and indigenous rights. At the Brandeis Interfaith Group's weekly dialogue, my peers from diverse faith and philosophical traditions share personal struggles and situations that their respective communities faced and overcame. We discuss pressing issues that reflect our individual passions and share our idealistic plans over cafeteria dinners. These exchanges compel me to appreciate my unique background while seeing myself as part of a broader vision for a better tomorrow.
Last year a few days before Passover, more than 50 Brandeis students and community members gathered in a common space for a Multicultural Freedom Seder. We recalled our own communities' redemption stories through songs, traditions and personal experiences. We also examined modern injustice and the stories of those who suffer daily as they work toward their own liberation -- migrant workers, refugees and people around the world who still can't express their identities without fear. It was a humbling experience that broadened my thinking. Like at any good Seder, it left me with more questions than answers. When discussing Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington, I couldn't help but wonder if any of the people in the room felt as if they had personally participated. Looking back, I wish I had asked.
I have grown to see my redemption from Egypt as intrinsically bound to the redemption of people everywhere. For me, remembering slavery in Egypt is not a passive activity limited to the Passover table; instead, it is a frame of reference for how I live my life and helps determine the causes where I commit my time and efforts both in college and beyond. I participate in the journey across the Red Sea and live my ancestors' legacy by actively working to achieve not just the most fundamental freedom they attained, but by building a more just world.
This year, I am going home for Passover. However, I hope to take the elements of school that most enhance my spirituality with me. At the seder, I will not absent-mindedly read the text, but will recite it emphatically with intention. As long as others are enslaved, I am a slave. Until we all are free, I am not fully free. Although I still do not entirely feel as if I were personally liberated from slavery, the powerful redemption stories I hear on campus and read in the news inspire me not simply to recall the Exodus, but to live it.
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