“At the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day,
all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:41)
Because the first day of Pesach falls on Shabbat, the regular cycle of parashot (Torah portions) is interrupted by a special holiday reading. Not surprisingly, it focuses on the night of the Exodus: God’s instructions to the Israelites to paint their doorposts (and lintels) with blood, the death of the Egyptian first-born, Pharoah’s surrender, and the Israelites’ escape to freedom.
The Torah says of the night of the Exodus: “It shall be a leil shimurim, a night of safeguarding, for God to take them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is God’s leil shimurim, a night of safeguarding for all the children of Israel throughout their generations.” (Ex. 21:42) Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) suggests the first use of the phrase refers to God’s promise to Abraham to free the Israelites from slavery (Gen. 15:13, 14, 16): God set this night aside even then. The second use of the phrase refers to God’s protection of the Israelites on that night, which extends to every Passover eve ever since.
Rashi’s reading allows an important understanding about the power of memory. The Hagaddah instructs us to see ourselves as if we had been freed from Egypt. Telling the story of Pesach turns ancient history into a personal and national memory. It also compacts time: at the seder table, God’s promise to Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, and our recitation all happen simultaneously. That moment of unity binds us as a people.
Memory of the past does not mean being a slave to the past, though. Pesach’s challenge is to make the memory live in today’s world.
Gut Shabbos-Gut Yontif/Shabbat Shalom-Chag Sameach