The Exodus was an event of national, historic significance: the beginning of Jewish history. But the crux of Passover is not the migration from one place to another, and not even the transition from slavery to freedom. Its most fundamental point is the willingness to make a revolutionary change in life, whether as one person or as a community.
Routine can diminish and erode our lives. The past is not only in the past: it exists also in the present, and even in the future. Changes, leaps, and bounds happen mostly in the early phases of life; later on change becomes increasingly difficult. The Exodus, however, is proof that a nation – which had, for centuries, lived the meager, bent down, scanty life of servitude – can find the strength to aspire to change and carry it out.
Although the splitting of the Red Sea is not the beginning of the Exodus, it carries profound symbolic significance. It symbolizes leaving the familiar world of the past and setting off on an unknown path. It reminds us how it feels to face what looks like an end: to walk directly into the sea.
Yet, what looked like the end turned out to be the beginning. Emerging from the Red Sea, the People of Israel found itself on the other side of reality, having walked through wonders, miracles and glory into complete deliverance from bondage.
Beyond the Divine power and the miracles that preceded the Exodus, there was another power, perhaps another miracle. Here was a people, united only by faint memories and common suffering, which agreed to follow a call from Heaven.
Our Sages say that the Exodus was not only a formative event: it continues to be an invitation for an ongoing experience. Before we can imagine that things can be different – that the future need not be an inevitable conclusion of the past and that it can be something entirely new – we must return to the starting point. And that is the time before slavery. When the straits are broken open, it becomes possible to set out on a new kind of existence. And indeed, the giving of the Torah could take place only after the Exodus.
The expression “a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt” appears in the Kiddush and prayer services of Shabbat and festivals. But the chance to emerge from exile exists always: on festive days, and also at special, unique moments, each and every day of the year. We can always relive the Exodus, understanding anew that we have the potential to be released, to be delivered at any time. It is up to us to use this reawakening and transform it into redemption, both for the nation and for each of us.
The Exodus from Egypt is the prototype for all the redemptions in world history: those that took place in the annals of great nations, or in small places, or in individual lives. Passover, in its rites and traditions, is about the joy of deliverance and redemption that comes when we pass over to the other side. It is also about the force that leads to redemption: the power to change. The Hebrew name for this festival, Pesaḥ, means leaping, passing over. Indeed, Pesaḥ asks us to stop walking the old, familiar paths, and to create change within ourselves and in our relationship with others and with the world.
Perhaps through the ancient memory of Passover, each one of us will experience this “passing over” also in our present; perhaps all the past memories and experiences will help open new gates for us. This is surely not easy. To achieve this freedom, we may have to receive some blows or wade through fire and blood. However, the redemptive power exists within each of us. We can all take a first step toward a new world, a world of glory.