Pesach: Imagine that!


There was a time when I would only go out of my way to listen to speakers who were older and more experienced than I. Recently, however, I have changed my preferences and have begun to seek out speakers, rabbis and teachers, who are young and relatively inexperienced. I find their ideas fresh and often on the mark. After all, they are in much better touch with our fast-changing world than I am.

Last year, during a visit to Israel, I sat in on a series of lectures designed to prepare the audience for the upcoming Pesach holiday. The speaker, a brilliant young rabbi, focused upon the Seder night, and particularly upon the text of the Haggadah. He spent most of his opening lecture elaborating upon what he considered the most difficult task with which we are all confronted on the first night of Pesach. The task is 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 L-rd did for me when I went free from Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8).”

The requirement is explicit in the biblical text: the L-rd did it for me, when I went free from Egypt.

The young rabbi candidly confessed that he had never been able to fulfill this requirement. Indeed, he didn’t think it was possible, certainly not for most of us, to envision ourselves personally experiencing slavery and redemption. “This,” he insisted, “is the most difficult task we are faced with on the Seder night.”

When I first heard this assertion, I found it quite provocative. I wanted to protest but maintained my silence in respect. I attributed his conviction to his relative immaturity. I have never found this obligation difficult. 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.

I usually forget the content of most lectures almost as soon as I leave the lecture hall. This time, however, I could not rid my mind of the young rabbi’s statement. I began to question my own inner certainty. Had it really been so easy for me all these years to envision myself as one of those who had experienced both slavery and the Exodus?

In the midst of my preoccupation, a long-forgotten memory suddenly surfaced in my mind. I was taken back in time to another lecture I had heard just before Pesach many years ago. This time, the speaker was not a young rabbi at all. Rather, he was an old and revered Chasidic rebbe, a survivor of the Holocaust who had spent years in Auschwitz and witnessed the murder of his wife and children with his own eyes.

That old rebbe was Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, may his memory be blessed, 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, Rabbi Halberstam recounted his own puzzlement over a lecture he had heard very long ago from one of his mentors. I no longer remember the name of that mentor, but Rabbi Halberstam was careful to identify him in detail because of the strange and almost unbelievable experience that he reported.

The mentor said that he had no difficulty at all imagining himself to have been in slavery in Egypt and to have been redeemed. In fact, this mentor reported that he could clearly remember the experience. 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. He could even still see, in his mind’s eye, the cruel face of his tormentors as they sadistically whipped him for not producing his daily quota of bricks.

The Klausenberger Rebbe confessed that when he first heard his mentor make those claims, he had difficulty believing them. He thought that his mentor had made such a claim just for the effect it would have upon his listeners. He stressed that sometimes it is justified for a speaker to resort to hyperbole to make his point more dramatic.

But then the rebbe continued to say that after many years, he had come to realize that his mentor was telling the absolute 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 on the Seder night. He used two Hebrew and Yiddish terms respectively: koach hadimyon (the power of imagination) and mitleid (empathy).

The lesson that the old Rebbe related to me and to the dozens of other eager listeners that evening so long ago was that we are often restricted by our own tendencies to rely upon our reason, rationality, and intellectuality. We underplay the powers that we have to fantasize, to imagine, to dream freely.

In a sense, we are slaves to reason and need to learn to allow ourselves to go beyond it and to give our imaginations free rein. Only then can we “see ourselves as if we had personally endured slavery.” Only by cultivating our imagery can we ourselves experience the emotions of freedom and liberty.

We are all required to imagine ourselves as the other person. If the other person is poor, the mitzvah of charity demands that we feel his poverty. If he is ill, we must suffer along with him. This is empathy, and to be empathic, one must rely upon a well-developed imagination.

Imagination and empathy are not words 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 in Auschwitz, and he appreciated redemption when he himself was finally freed.

The young rabbi had, through his good fortune, never experienced anything remotely resembling slavery. Naturally, he was thus deprived of the ability to really appreciate freedom.

After a few days, I approached the young rabbi and shared with him the words I had heard decades ago, before he was even born. I told him what the Klausenberger Rebbe had said about empathy and imagination.

But with a gentle smile, the young rabbi had the last word: “The Klausenberger Rebbe didn’t say that learning to imagine and to empathize were easy.”

I had to admit that he was correct. Creative imagination and compassionate empathy are not easily attained. Achieving them may indeed be the hardest task of the holiday of Pesach.

But I feel confident that the young rabbi agreed with my assertion: Learning to use one’s powers of imagination in order to empathize with the plight of others is the essential objective of this magnificent holiday, zman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom.