April 14, 2005
Time to Leave Your Mitzrayim
We learn in the haggadah, "B'chol dor v'dor, chayav adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatzah mi'mitzrayim" -- "In every generation it is one's duty to regard himself as though he personally had come out of Egypt."
In effect, I had a rather personal and literal fulfillment of that teaching almost 60 years ago.
During World War II, at 18 years old, I was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. It was my lot to be stationed in the headquarters of a Quartermaster outfit in the China-Burma-India Theater of War. Our base was in Assam, India, just below Tibet, and bordering on China and Burma. Our task was to supply the truck convoys that traversed the Burma Road as well as the cargo planes that "flew the hump" ferrying supplies over the Himalayas into China.
During my first Pesach in India, I went to a seder sponsored by what was then called the Jewish Welfare Board. Held somewhere in the jungle area, it was attended by several hundred Jewish personnel.
After the defeat of both Germany and Japan, my company had to stay behind at our post for several months for administrative work. When the order came to leave -- in the middle of April 1946 -- I was able to get to a seder at the beautiful synagogue that then existed in Calcutta, which I had visited upon my arrival in India almost two years earlier.
During chol ha'moed Pesach -- the intervening days of the holiday -- I was able to board a troop ship for the long journey home. We went from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) and through the Suez Canal, before heading out to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. After going through the Suez Canal, our ship made stops at Port Said and Alexandria, Egypt. I can still recall the shipwrecks in the ports as well as the young kids in small boats begging for coins.
So there I was -- a Jewish Israelite, in "bondage" to the military, leaving Egypt, during Pesach, on my way home to the "freedom" of civilian life.
The haggadah teaches that Ben Zoma had the occasion to quote the Scriptures "L'ma'an tizkor et yom tzaitcha mi'eretz mitzrayim kol y'may chayecha" -- "That you shall remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life" (Deuteronomy 16:3). Indeed, I would. I was going home. I was safe. I would be free!
It should be noted that, often times, the Hebrew root of the word Mitzrayim, matzar, which means a narrow strait or a limited boundary, is interpreted to apply to our personal lives in terms of the struggle to be free of our own "enslavements." We can be in "bondage" to personal trials, obsessions, habits, compulsions, narrow opinions, prejudiced attitudes, grudges and family disputes -- all of which prevent us from realizing our fulfillment in life and the joy of knowing who we are and what we represent.
We are challenged to overcome our personal "mitzrayims" -- to find the resiliency and strength of will within ourselves to break though the wall of circumstance. Indeed, faith creates heroism, and there is the mystique of human nature -- the ability to transcend pain and fear and to transform weakness into strength. Is that not the collective history of our people? And is that not the essential lesson of Pesach?
May the Almighty in His redemptive mercy enable each of us to find our way to freedom from whatever "enslavements" we have so that we can more readily serve Him and bring glory to His Holy Name.
Mervin B. Tomsky is rabbi emeritus, Burbank Temple Emanu El and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Western States Region