“In each and every generation,” we read in the Passover Haggadah, “it is one’s duty to regard themselves as though they had personally gone out of Egypt.”
During the first night’s seder this year, I found myself further reflecting on this line. How is it possible for me, in the year 2022, to experience the exodus myself?
I thought about how myself, like my parents, grandparents, and their ancestors before — have all sat at their respective seder tables, attempting to relive the centuries-old experience of being enslaved in Egypt yet subsequently redeemed.
At our seder, over the course of several hours, we retold the Passover story in great detail and with keen interest. Additionally, we participated in various rituals that invoked us to feel and experience the exodus.
We ate the matzah — the bread of affliction — and tasted the bitterness of oppression in my grandmother’s horseradish. Meanwhile, we reclined like royalty, drinking the four cups of wine and enjoying the holiday meal.
On a night of many questions, I found myself thinking again. Why do we have to, year after year, eat the same foods, tell the same stories, and sing the same songs?
Why does the Haggadah and Jewish tradition place such a large emphasis on an individual’s ability to put themselves in the shoes of their Israelite ancestors. Is it even possible to do so?
Later in the night, I managed to think of an answer. I recognized a deep and brilliant psychological truth that is inherent in the sages’ institution of these practices.
In his book The Social Animal, Eliot Aronson, a psychologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests three primary reasons to explain why, as a result of external influences, one will act a certain way or adopt particular beliefs.
The first type of conformity, according to Aronson, is compliance — obedience due to a fear of punishment. For example, if one is motivated by compliance, they won’t speed on the highway simply because it risks being pulled over by a traffic cop.
Next, the second type of conformity is known as identification. The concept behind identification is that one’s attempt to identify with or copy another character may inspire their own actions or beliefs. To keep the speeding analogy, one may decide not to speed because, let’s say, their grandparent was a cautious and safe driver and their behavior is worthy of emulation.
According to Aronson, a third type of conformity — the highest as well as strongest — is called internalization. When one internalizes a belief or action, they hold or practice it because they value it intrinsically and believe it to be right.
There is a moral dimension to internalization, one that makes its conformity more deeply-rooted and intractable than the other two types. For example, one might say that they refuse to speed because it puts their life and the lives of others in danger. They will hold this belief independent of anyone watching them or any external threats or potential consequences.
Similarly, at the Passover seder, the Haggadah tasks us with achieving the highest form of conformity — internalization. Though many generations removed, the various Passover rituals enable us to internalize the experience of the shackles of slavery,the distress of bondage, and the joy of liberation. We can actually relive the story of the exodus in our own homes, in our own times, and in our own places.
In his Passover Haggadah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ZT”L, former Chief Rabbi of England, connects the concept of internalization with the true significance of the Passover holiday. The experience of slavery, Rabbi Sacks says, transformed the Jewish people into a nation that was ready to champion the word of God, and foster peace, justice, and righteousness into society.
As we relive the experience of slavery and liberation each year at our seders, an appreciation of freedom, morality, and our obligation to protect it becomes indelible in the Jewish national consciousness. Before the Jews could internalize and espouse freedom and redemptive living, Rabbi Sacks says, the Jews needed to experience decades of oppression. The experience of loss teaches us how to truly value what we had.
I believe this idea has implications and meaning beyond the scope of the Passover holiday. More than anything, I believe that as individuals, we each learn and grow most effectively from our own first-hand experiences.
There is only so much we can learn from a textbook, a YouTube video, or other second-hand sources of knowledge and information. In order to truly know something, or value it, we must actually have experienced it ourselves with our own being and senses, integrating pathos into our logos.
Sometimes we must have to undergo a personal experience — perhaps even a journey of struggle or doubt — in order to internalize our growth and make it a core component of who we are.
I believe that the concept of internalization contains, in large part, the secret to the longevity of the Jewish tradition. Through internalization, the Jewish people are able to relive the experience of the exodus all these years after. Memory serves not merely a passive, or historical role, but an active one. As the generations go on, Jews will be putting themselves in the shoes of those who left Egypt. Meanwhile, the Passover story lives on.