Why Retell the Story of the Exodus From Egyptian Slavery?

What if the story we tell on Passover each year didn’t actually happen? Or what if it didn’t happen in the way the story is told in the biblical book of Exodus? For years, commentators have asked how a rationalist can enter into a story laden with miracles, while most archeologists now challenge defining details of the narrative, citing a lack of evidence that a large number of people fled Egypt or that they wandered from that land to what is now Israel. Does such a claim shake our faith, or is it possible that our attachment to this most widely celebrated Jewish holiday was never rooted in its historicity?

If the telling of our story isn’t about historical accuracy, then what is the point of celebrating Passover? How does the Seder liberate us in each generation? How might it help free us of the habits and stuck places within our own lives and relationships, and offer hope in the face of weighty despair as our hearts break in response to seemingly endless and intractable global suffering and oppression?

“In every generation a person is obligated to see themselves as if (ke’ilu) they had left Egypt.” These words of the Haggadah, taken from the Talmud, urge us to view the Seder ritual not as a recounting of a long-ago historical event that happened to other people, but rather, as a transformative act that actually happens within each of us.

Jewish educator Rachel Brodie, z”l, highlighted a small but powerful phrase from the Haggadah’s invitation above: ke’ilu, “as if.”[1] In each generation, we are to engage not only our collective memory but also our capacity to imagine. We may take a good look at the world around us and see clearly the impossibility of change and healing. But the Haggadah invites us to enter into the ke’ilu/“as if” to embrace the realm of imagination and possibility.

“In imitating the exemplary acts of a god or of a mythic hero,” writes philosopher Mircea Eliade, “or simply by recounting their adventures … [a person] detaches [themself] from profane time and magically re-enters the Great Time, the sacred time.”[2]

The Exodus narrative invites us into the magical realm of sacred, mythic time.

Whether or not the specific ancient Israelite exodus from Egypt actually happened, it is clear from a collective perspective that Jewish history has been riddled with oppression, pain and despair. Those experiences of historical otherness have contributed greatly to how we define our very existence. And on a personal level, it is equally clear that each of us faces moments when we feel trapped, burdened and unable to find a way to greater freedom.

Historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi suggests that the Passover story is an archetypal narrative that allows us to subsume the specific, isolated stories of our own lives or our own generation into a single, familiar master story. “Even the most terrible events,” he posits, “are somehow less terrifying when viewed within old patterns rather than in their bewildering specificity.”[3]

Each of us faces moments when we feel trapped, burdened and unable to find a way to greater freedom.

There is a gravity and power to Great Time, and to the archetypal narratives that live within it, that are able to meet the sometimes unbearable weight of our despair at the brokenness of profane time. Historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests that every part of a culture tells a story that might shape us, including all systems of oppression. It is an act of resistance to tell a counter story — one of liberation and hope.

As Jews, we tell the counter story of the Exodus at every opportunity in small moments — in our daily prayers, as we bless the wine on Shabbat or in chanting one of the many Torah portions in which the story is referenced. And once a year, we dive deeply into this master story of liberation. We enter and dwell in sacred time for an entire week, telling the story of hope and transformation. In an act of freedom, we choose the story that will shape our values and inform how we act in the world, and that we will pass on to our children and our community’s children. We put aside the concern and the knowledge that as the memory of this year’s Seder fades, we may again act from fear, from separation, from the other more toxic stories that are so deep in our culture and our own consciousness. But this Seder night is different. On this night, the story that we have chosen — the story of freedom — reigns.

In the Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law), Maimonides gives a slight twist to our imperative from the Haggadah that in every generation, we must see ourselves as having left Egypt:

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם להראות את עצמו כאילו הוא בעצמו יצא עתה

In every generation a person is obligated to show themselves as if they were now (ata) leaving servitude in Egypt. [4]

Maimonides’ version offers two crucial changes to our tradition’s imperative to each generation (bekhol dor vador). First, in addition to seeing our own story in the context of the master narrative, we are also showing ourselves in the recounting.

Even as we locate ourselves in a more universal archetypal story, the individual nuances of our own story shine through. We have not just an opportunity but an obligation to show who we are — to ourselves, and to our generation. How does this Exodus narrative play out for me? I must demonstrate how the values imparted in the story affect my daily life and actions.

Second, the Rambam adds a small but important word to the verse: ata/now. The gesture of liberation moves squarely from an ancient memory to something that is happening in real time, now.

It is not the old, static story that will bring liberation but the new one that emerges now — in the moment of the Seder — that we couldn’t have previously imagined. We actualize the gesture of liberation in this very moment by moving beyond words into embodied ritual.


How do we show ourselves living the values of our story? Right now, in this moment in history?

We make this story our own, in each generation. Nowhere is this clearer than in the flourishing of unique Haggadot. Haggadot have been evolving for centuries, and the codified text we now know wasn’t always so fixed. Marcia Falk emphasizes this in her introduction to her Haggadah, Night of Beginnings: “The history of its development shows that ‘tradition’ was — and, in fact, still is — constantly being changed.” Beginning in the 1930s, the first Haggadah was published that made a contemporary, social statement (a critique of fascism, comparing Hitler to Pharaoh). That Haggadah paved the way for the creative explosion of others that employ the Exodus narrative as the root story from which we jump into explorations of current social issues or a lens through which to tell the story of a particular group’s enslavement-to-liberation story.

Today, we can pick among a feminist, queer, secular, ecological or even a Hogwarts Haggadah. Or we can use a template to create our own version that reflects our personal experiences, resonances and struggles. Symbols can become transvalued: The brick that symbolized the harsh labor of our spiritual ancestors becomes a brick of liberation in a Pride Haggadah, thrown at police at the Stonewall Inn riot that was an instrumental moment in a burgeoning gay pride movement. Or we can bring new items to our table, such as an orange for feminist and/or lesbian visibility, Miriam’s Cup, fair-trade chocolate for labor rights, a tomato for farm workers, an acorn to recognize the experience of Indigenous peoples, an artichoke to celebrate interfaith unions, a cup of coffee to highlight the trans protesters who threw their coffee at police at a cafeteria raid in the 1950s.

Truly becoming our own “ritual experts,”[5] we creatively insert ourselves into the mythic story in a way that reflects us, our guests and our societal moment, and by doing so, express our deepest values. What we choose to tell of our collective “history” tells us more about the questions that weigh heavy on our hearts and minds than about an objective account of our ancestry. In fact, in each generation, Jews have intentionally or unwittingly chosen what of the story to tell and how to tell it. If we treated the story as a true, historical account, then it would be fixed and static. In our curation of the story, we free it; it is not locked in history but open to being reconstructed each year as we create new Haggadot, select new readings and decide how and what to tell. It is a conscious, honest, creative process.

Susannah Heschel writes that:

Since each person is unique, each expression will be as well. One cannot be Jewish the way one’s grandparents were Jewish; that would be spiritual plagiarism…[V]ibrant society does not dwell in the shadows of old ideas and viewpoints; in the realm of the spirit, only a pioneer can be a true heir…Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation, an event.[6]

By locating ourselves within Great Time, we eschew spiritual plagiarism in favor of an ever-unfolding, creative process.


Another way we take Maimonides’ words to heart and fulfill our obligation to encounter the Exodus now is by experiencing the story through our own bodies. In fact, in his instructions to us, he twice uses the word atzmo, that we must show ourselves as if we are now, ourselves, leaving servitude in Egypt. The word atzmo means “themself,” but also “their bone[s].” How do we feel the story in our bones?

The power of the Seder is that it is an immersive, embodied experience. We feel the story coming alive in our bodies, in our bones. One way this is accomplished is that we don’t merely tell the story, we ingest the story. We don’t just read about the harshness of slavery, the exultation of freedom. We taste the bitterness, swallow the tears, recline in our chairs to feel freedom in our bodies, and we might dance with timbrels in hand at the crossing of the sea. Some even cathartically play the role of the taskmaster, hitting one another with green onions like a whip. The Seder is a full body experience. We take the narrative out of the intellectual realm and bring it into the world of feeling, of being, inviting us to experience the story beneath and beyond words.

At our Seder, the foods themselves contain the pain of the collective story — the bitterness of maror, the matzah of poverty, the haroset, which reminds us of the mortar our spiritual ancestors made as part of their forced labor. For most of us it is a challenge, thankfully, to abide by the Seder’s dictate to place ourselves inside the narrative of slavery and liberation. But by ingesting the story, it becomes real for us. We can begin to imagine that we were actually there. We may, then, be more likely to feel empathy, rather than mere sympathy, for those still enslaved and take action to bring about their freedom. One could argue that a central purpose of retelling the story of the Exodus, in fact, is to ensure that we are listening for and heeding the cry of anyone who is not yet liberated, just as God heard our own cry in our text. The way this concept becomes implanted within us is, at least in part, through the physical re-enactment via the ritual of the Seder.

This proposition that spiritual experience can be accessed not despite but through our bodies comes from deep within our traditions, and here at the Seder, the connection is palpable. In Jewish teachings, our spiritual and physical selves are interconnected, and Jewish mystics and Hasids taught that spiritual wisdom can be accessed through felt sensation in our bodies. The Passover Seder is a powerful example of embodied Jewish practice.

A central purpose of retelling the story of the Exodus is to ensure that we are listening for —and heeding — the cry of anyone who is not yet liberated, just as God heard our own cry in our text.

When we tell our story from the place of our bodies, our bones, we can also access healing from trauma. We internalize family memories passed down from generation to generation, stories about where we came from. In My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem teaches that embedded in our DNA are our ancestors’ stories, both of trauma and resilience.[7] He writes that although our inclination is to talk out of the places of hurt, we won’t actually heal, individually or collectively, until we also get in touch with how we remember those stories in our bodies. He finds in his own search for healing from generational trauma in his family that the same community that suffered so greatly holds the keys to its liberation, through embodied practices that have been passed down through the generations like chanting, swaying and humming — practices that allow what we may be suppressing from rising to the surface. Menakem suggests that healing from both our individual and collective trauma is a crucial part of our social justice work. For Jews, so much pain is passed on from generation to generation, from the Inquisition to pogroms to displacement to the Holocaust. But only when we work through that pain will we have the power to heal our bodies and the world. Our work of tikkun olam, healing the world, and tikkun ha-nefesh, healing ourselves, are symbiotic. We open to the possibility of joy in our bodies when we recognize that this is precisely where wisdom and resilience reside. At the Seder, we actively pass this wisdom onto the next generation.

Katie Cannon, a Black Womanist theologian, writes that, “Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories,” suggesting that remembering is the key to our own healing and regeneration. The very answer to inherited, bodily pain might be located in healing, embodied rituals. So, too, Jews have handed down the embodied practice of the Seder to answer the very problems that the inherited story of oppression presents: body movements, singing, chanting — all soothing responses to pain. Our people’s stories live in our bodies and in our bones; they are imprinted on us not just emotionally or spiritually, but physically. So it follows that ritual needs to inhabit this space of the physical as well. In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk offers that, “In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”


In 1997, the Dalai Lama attended a Passover Seder in DC with 40 prominent Jewish leaders. In a letter reflecting on this experience and on a visit with Jewish leaders in Dharamsala almost a decade before, the Dali Lama wrote,[8]

In our dialogue with rabbis and Jewish scholars, the Tibetan people have learned about the secrets of Jewish spiritual survival in exile: one secret is the Passover Seder. Through it for 2000 years, even in very difficult times, Jewish people remember their liberation from slavery to freedom and this has brought you hope in times of difficulty.[9]

The secret to not only our survival, but our thriving, has been the ability to see ourselves embedded within our stories in a way that enables us to bring our current, lived experience to our tradition.

When archeologists in the past 20 or so years began to challenge the veracity of the biblical narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, we did not experience a seismic shift in the way Jews view the Passover holiday. It remains the most widely celebrated occasion in our calendar. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes that “historiography, an actual recording of historical events, is by no means the principal medium through which the collective memory of the Jewish people has been addressed or aroused.” So what is the principal medium by which we remember? The secret to not only our survival, but our thriving, has been the ability to see ourselves embedded within our stories in a way that enables us to bring our current, lived experience to our tradition. And when we apply this creative, evolving lens to our narrative and to our spiritual practice, the stories themselves keep living on through us and remind us of our deepest values and urge us to live by them. Passover, independent of its basis or groundedness in historical fact, serves to ground us and help us to locate ourselves when we feel lost and bewildered in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous desert in which we wander.

Rabbis Margie Jacobs and Mychal Copeland were classmates at RRC and continue hevruta/study partnership to this day. This collaboration was an outgrowth of their ongoing conversation around text, tradition and embodied spiritual practice.

[1] Brodie, Rachel. Jewish Studio Project immersive, May 6-10, 2018.

[2] Eliade, Mircea, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: :The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities, Harper & Row, 1975.

[3]Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. University of Washington Press,1996, p.69.

[4] Mishneh Torah, Leavened and Unleavened Bread, 7:6-8

[5] A reference to Susan Starr Sered’s Women as Ritual Experts: The Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem (Publications of the American Folklore Society), 1996.

[6] Heschel, Abraham Joshua, Robert Erlewine (Ed.), Susannah Heschel (Introduction) Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known By God (Plough Spiritual Guides: Backpack Classics), p. xiv, 2021

[7] Menakem, Resmaa, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Central Recovery Press; 2017.

[8] In 1997 Rabbis and American dignitaries held a special seder service in Washington DC with the Dalai Lama. He wrote this to the participants.

[9] Van der Kolk, Bessel, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Books, 2015.

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