The redemption story of the Haggadah opens with Matza, the bread of affliction – הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא. It’s what our ancestors ate, and we invite whoever is hungry to join – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל.
If you think about it, it’s a strange invitation. It’s one thing to invite someone to join a lavish feast; but what sort of dubiously kind invitation is it to share in my bread of affliction?
R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that what transforms the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share with others. The distinguished psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl witnessed humanity stripped to its essence in the concentration camps and observed how, despite living under the most terrible conditions, there were still men walking around comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread. People like these, the ones who placed themselves in service of others, who committed themselves to a greater cause, were the ones who found nourishment even in complete deprivation, who kept their fire burning even in absolute freezing darkness.
The Maharal notes that the Exodus is so fundamental because it imbues Judaism with an essential quality of fundamental freedom – we can utilize our free will with no external coercive influence. Freedom is oxygen for the soul; and it’s also a state of mind.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that Elazar ben Azariah discovered Ben Zoma’s teaching to recall the Exodus at nights on the day he became a leader; because it falls to a leader to be the beacon of hope during times of darkness and difficulty.
God physically freed the Jews of that time, but mentally, they never left. Rav Kook explains that the key distinction between a slave and a free man is not simply physical liberty; there’s a mental component as well. There could be an enlightened slave whose spirit is free, and a free man whose whole life is enslaved to his basest desires – physically free, but a slave mentality. The people who walked out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and stood at Sinai, then spent 40 lost years pining to go back “home” to Egypt. Only we can free our spirit, which leads us to a shocking but indisputable conclusion.
God can save you from Egypt, but not even God can save you from yourself.
Even in the worst of times, we can still share with others, and in doing so, we become partners in our own redemption.