The book of Exodus is the second book of the Torah. This book may also be read as a book of Jewish collective memory.
Is memory a recollection of what happened or the celebration of an ideal past? The Israelites who just came out of Egypt remembered their land of slavery as a joyful and secure land (Ex. 16:3).
Indeed, soon after their liberation, they rebelled against Moses because of hardship they experienced as free people, remembering their happy journey in Egypt: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” These ex-slaves forgot how the Egyptians “made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.” (Ex. 1:14) and how they cried out for God’s help (Ex. 23-4). Memory is selective.
From this perspective, the Passover Haggadah can be read as a liturgy that we “pray” on Passover nights, or as a testimony of our collective memory. It is the testimony of God’s wonders in the land of Egypt but also the memory of how a nation could enslave another nation.
We begin the Haggadah remembering our physical slavery: we were slaves in Egypt (“Avadim hayinu le-Far'o be-mitzrayim”) it is like if the authors of the Haggadah warned us to not fool ourselves considering the beautiful and technologically advanced Egypt as a land where we “ate our fill of bread.”
Two other lessons the Haggadah teaches us: We were not born spiritually perfect and we should not blame Egypt of our spiritual slavery. Our spiritual slavery began much earlier, as we read in the Haggadah: “Initially our forefathers were idolaters (mi-tehilla o’vde ‘avodah zarah hayu avotenu.) Memory, if used properly, can be a healing tool.
Let’s look closer to “The second Exodus.” This is the Web site of the “Jews of Egypt,” of Jews who were born in Egypt and had to leave this country between 1948 and 1967. In 1948, there were about 70,000 Jews in Egypt; between 1949 and 1950, some 20,000 Jews left Egypt; by 1961 fewer than 10,000 remained; today fewer than 100 Jews live in Egypt, the youngest is 65 years old.
It was during the Revolution, in the early 1950s, that many Jews left, especially those who were French or British. The economic situation forced many to leave, since they couldn't find work to earn a living.
In spite of these glamorous statistics, after 50 years, hundreds of Jews scattered in the four corners of the Earth refresh their memory in this Web site celebrating their “beautiful life in Egypt,” their “happy memory of a world that is not anymore.”
It was so “joyous” that, after thousands of years of Jews history in Egypt, today less than 100 Jews are left. Let’s not celebrate “Egypt of peace and security,” but only “Egypt who saw me as a child.”
Let’s not confuse the nostalgia of our youth at time of aging with “memory.” That is not a Haggadah.
(ED. NOTE: The author holds a degree in Physics and Rabbinical Ordination from Italy, an MPhil from JTSA, NY, and is rabbi at Beth Judah Temple, Wildwood.)