We were there. Where? Ask the rabbi

April 3, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple shares his thoughts as Passover approaches the end of the festival.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

“In every generation a person must see himself as if they had come out of Egypt”.

That’s what the Haggadah says. The Pesach story isn’t merely an ancient event involving our ancestors, but a personal experience in which we ourselves took part.

We were there.

We were enslaved in Egypt, we yearned to break free, we followed Moses out of bondage. That’s why the Haggadah praises God who redeemed us as well as our ancestors.

Not only our forebears but we ourselves emerged from serfdom to freedom, from darkness to daylight, from subjugation to selfhood.

This explains why even those who were born long after 1945 are Holocaust survivors who feel the pain and rejoice in the deliverance.

Don’t imagine that anyone is trying to minimise the horrors of the Holocaust years, but it shows that no Jew is ever a latter-day bystander.

If he was not Abraham himself, he lived with Abraham in that generation. He was Moses or Moses’ contemporary.

When someone asks how old I am, I can’t answer in years. I am a Jew, as ancient as history.

If someone asks how long I expect to live, I can’t hazard a guess as to my life expectancy.

I am a Jew, and a Jew lives until history is no more.

If I am Abraham or Moses I could also be the Messiah. It might depend on me as to whether mankind will reach redemption.


“Dayyenu” is a good Hebrew phrase. If the ancient Egyptians had spoken Hebrew they would have found the word useful.

After each of the plagues, coming in mounting order of severity until they reached crisis point, the king and people of Egypt might well have cried out, “Dayyenu! Enough! We cannot stand any more!”

Why then was it necessary to have a full ten plaques? Surely not just because ten is a round number!

Was it to ensure that Egypt would be well and truly broken? To ensure that Pharaoh himself would be brought to his knees?

All this is true, but the Torah account of the plagues implies that there had to be a decisive victory over both Egypt and its gods. God says, “I will bring punishment to all the gods of Egypt: I am the Lord!” (Ex. 12:12). Another verse says, “The Lord brought judgment on their gods” (Num. 33:4).

The question is, then, what were their gods? Pinchas Peli draws attention to the fact that the first plague was an attack on the river the Egyptians deified, the Nile; the second, a mockery of the frog goddess, who was said to help women in labour and assist fertility; and so on.

But it is more than this. Pharaoh himself was seen as a god; the sages say the Egyptians thought he never needed to fulfil bodily functions.

The problem when a human ruler or regime has divine pretensions is that they feel they are answerable to nobody; this is why Jewish kings had to carry a Torah scroll with them at all times, to be reminded that they were subject to God’s law.

What does that law say? That all human beings are in the Divine image, and a people who degrades and enslaves others has the wrong god.


The Shabbat of Pesach is marked by the reading of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. It’s one of the finest pieces of poetry that we possess.

The poem has two main interpretations – literalist (seeing it as a human love story, perhaps a wedding song) and allegorical (showing the love between God and Israel).

Jewish tradition as depicted in the Midrash prefers the allegorical view. It sees the emotional, romantic content of the verses as depicting the spiritual yearning of the people of Israel for God, and God’s yearning for them. Hence when the Book says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm” (8:6), it symbolises the idea, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine” (2:16, 6:3).

The origin of the symbol may be that of sealing or stamping an article with a mark of identity or ownership.

God and Israel are intertwined to the end of time, even though they have moments when they despair of the other’s loyalty and are tempted to repudiate one another. Yet in the end they cannot live without one another and nothing can break the bond of love (8:7).

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