Once, during a visit to Israel, I sat in on a series of lectures which were designed to prepare the audience for the upcoming Passover holiday. The speaker, a brilliant young rabbi, focused upon the seder night, and particularly upon the text of the Haggadah. He focused on what he considered the most difficult task with which we are all confronted on that first night, described in the following famous passage:
“In each and every generation, a person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt. As it is written, ‘And you shall explain to your son on that day that it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8).’”
The young rabbi candidly confessed to his audience that he had never been able to fulfill this requirement. Indeed, he didn’t think it was possible to envision ourselves as if we personally had experienced slavery and redemption.
When I first heard this assertion, I found it to be quite provocative. Personally, I have found it quite easy to imagine myself as a slave and to personally exult in the emotional experiences of redemption and freedom.
In the midst of my preoccupation with the young rabbi’s assertion, a long-forgotten memory suddenly resurfaced of a pre-Passover lecture I had heard many years ago. This time, the speaker was an old and revered chasidic rebbe, a Holocaust survivor who had spent years in Auschwitz and had witnessed the vicious murder of his wife and children with his own eyes. This was Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, who was known as the Klausenberger Rebbe, after the small town in the Balkans where he had served prior to World War II.
In that lecture, Halberstam recounted his own puzzlement over a lecture he had heard from one of his mentors. The mentor said that he had no difficulty imagining himself to have been in slavery in Egypt and to have been redeemed. In fact, he could recall in great detail the burdensome work he had to perform, the dirty hovel in which he was forced to live, and the sighs and groans of his companions.
The Klausenberger Rebbe confessed that when he first heard his mentor make those claims, he had difficulty believing them. But then the rebbe continued to say that after many years, he had come to realize that his mentor was telling the truth. “It took the experiences I had during the horrible years of the Holocaust,” he exclaimed, “for me to realize why my mentor was able to recall his experiences in ancient Egypt’s tyranny.”
The rebbe then went on to elaborate upon two psychological processes that are necessary to invoke during the seder night as we recite the Haggadah, the power of imagination and empathy. We are often restricted by our own tendencies to rely upon our reason, rationality, and intellectuality. In a sense, we are slaves to reason and need to learn to allow ourselves to go beyond reason and give our imaginations free rein. Only then can we “see ourselves as if we had personally endured slavery.”
We are also required to imagine ourselves as if we are the other person. If the other person is poor, the mitzvah of charity demands that we ourselves feel his poverty. If he is ill, we must literally suffer along with him. This is empathy.
Imagination and empathy are not words that one often hears in rabbinic sermons, but they are the words that the Klausenberger Rebbe used that evening. And, as he concluded in his remarks, he learned about those words through the bitter suffering that he endured when he was enslaved in Auschwitz, appreciating redemption only when he was finally freed from his personal bondage.
Learning to use one’s powers of imagination in order to empathize with the plight of others is the essential objective of this holiday, “z’man cheiruteinu,” the season of our freedom.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.