Berl Katznelson, The Inexhaustible Wellsprings
(1887–1944) One of the intellectual founders of Labor Zionism, instrumental to the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and the editor of Davar, the first daily newspaper of the workers’ movement.
From parents to children, [down] through the generations, the Exodus from Egypt was transmitted as a personal memory that does not fade or dim. “In each and every generation a person is obligated to see oneself as if they had [personally] come out of Egypt.” In the world and through time, you have no grander historical consciousness than this, nor a greater merging of the individual and the collective than the one present in this ancient pedagogic instruction. I know of no other literary creation that teaches the abhorrence of slavery and the love of freedom more than the story of the subjugation and [subsequent] exodus from Egypt. And I know of no ancient memory that is entirely focused on the future, that is wholly symbolic of our present and our future, as “a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt.”
How deep-seated is the impulse for freedom in the heart of this nation that was able to fashion such a brilliant creation in the flower of its age and to [succeed in] transmitting it down the generations! And this creation has no small share in the destiny of all those Jewish-born rebels and freedom fighters that hold freedom sacred.
Foundations for Planning
- What is morality and what are the factors that have an impact on the development of our morality?
- What are the responsibilities of the individual in regard to issues of social justice?
- How can literature serve as a vehicle for social change?
- What does it mean to be “free” in Judaism?
- Why is it important for people and cultures to construct narratives about their experience?
- How is the Torah story my story?
- How can exploring the past impact our present?
- How can we connect to the narrative of the Exodus in a personal and real way today?
- Have I ever experienced anything similar to the oppression of Egypt in my life?
- What do we do if we struggle to relate to the experience of national oppression on a personal level?
- Does this ancient story really tell me anything about myself as an individual in the 21st century?
- How can I use the story to grow as a moral human being?
The Haggada, In every generation… בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt. Berl Katznelson, The Inexhaustible Wellsprings Connecting Past and Future: Katznelson connects the...
The Haggada, In every generation…
בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.
Berl Katznelson, The Inexhaustible Wellsprings
Connecting Past and Future: Katznelson connects the Rabbis’ mandate (Pesachim 10:5) for each generation to connect at a personal level with the Exodus from Egypt to the transmission of the love of freedom from generation to generation. Although he refers to it as an “ancient memory,” he stresses that it is directed to the future. By individualizing the experience of having been freed, Jews are more apt to understand the importance of abhorring injustice.
Personalizing History: Katznelson comes from a generation of Zionist writers and thinkers whose heart and soul is firmly planted in the Jewish tradition and who are committed to using that tradition to blaze a new path for the modern Jew, a path leading from exile to redemption in a rebuilt home in the Land of Israel. In this text, he reaches back to the Mishnah, that ancient and basic primer of Judaism, and pulls out from there “a brilliant creation.” This creation is the idea of personalizing history.
From Universal to Personal Message: The Exodus story inspired revolutionaries to rise against the forces of tyranny and that it was the Jews who taught the world that “[every] system of oppression, no matter how powerful it appears to be, can be overthrown.” Katznelson now remarks that not only did Judaism inspire others, but it did indeed inspire the Jews themselves to join the fight for freedom, and not just for themselves – “this creation has no small share in the destiny of all those Jewish-born rebels and freedom fighters that hold freedom sacred.” Many of the Russian Bolshevik revolutionaries in his day were Jewish.
Rachel Travis, Parshat Shmot 5771
Challenge of Relating to Slavery: Travis raises the concern that not everyone is able to feel as if they had been a slave in Egypt. Not everyone can relate to the experience of leaving slavery and becoming free. Travis herself is one of these people and questions if the social justice message embedded in the story of the Exodus is lost when one cannot imagine what it is to be in that place. In her view, the fact that the contemporary generation cannot personally feel what it means to be oppressed makes it even more incumbent upon them to internalize the message of freedom. One’s own freedom should thus be the motivator to action so that all can enjoy justice and freedom.
Torah laws mandate a just society: Travis points to the Exodus being directly related to receiving the Torah at Sinai, where the Israelites entered a covenant with God. This covenant expected, even mandated, through its mitzvot that Jews take on the responsibility to create a just society.
Seeing personal challenges as a way to connect to the Exodus story: The final text challenges Travis’s premise that one may be unable to relate to the suffering of others when they are free by suggesting that everyone’s individual travails allow them to personally connect to the Exodus story.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, Personal Enslavement
Biographical Background: Rabbi Twerski was a world-renowned psychiatrist who established several institutions to care for victims of addiction and substance abuse (such as the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, and the Shaar Hatikvah rehabilitation center for prisoners in Israel). He was a prolific author of over 90 books, mostly on topics of Judaism and self-help.
Addiction as a form of Slavery: In this excerpt from one of his books presents a novel approach to help us as individuals connect to the Pesach story of slavery and redemption. A person who battles addiction can truly understand what slavery is. Anyone who is “a slave to himself” because of an addiction or inability to change habits and negative character traits is one who understands the value of liberty. This could be addiction to cigarettes, gambling, excess food, the smartphone, or the office.
Other forms of slavery today: He also mentions those people whose happiness is dependent on what others think of them, or whose behavior is determined by peer pressure or society. These people, Rabbi Twerski says, have no freedom. “Anytime one loses control of any aspect of one’s behavior, one is a slave.” Who among us can truly say we don’t struggle with one or more of these “addictions”? This is our modern-day slavery for which we must work hard to liberate ourselves from.
- The Rugratz Passover Episode (A Rugratz Passover) is a great video trigger for what Seder night could look like. It has the children (who one by one get mistakenly locked in the attic with Grandpa Boris) hearing the Passover story told in such an experiential way that they imagine themselves to be in the story (while their parents are reading the haggada in a dry and unanimated way downstairs highlighting what a Seder often looks like when really it should be more like Grandpa Boris’ version in the attic). If you have enough time you could show all 24 minutes, or just minutes 4:55-10:10 to get the idea. The children could imagine themselves as slaves both because Grandpa Boris was an expert storyteller, but also because they had experienced “oppression” at the hands of the older children (this is a meta-theme throughout the show Rugratz). Once you have shown this clip, you can encourage you students to relate to the story of the Exodus in a personal way, using the following questions as a launching off point:
- Why do you think the children imagined themselves in the story of the Exodus in this way?
- Do you think you have to be a slave yourself (or experience oppression) to be able to relate to the story?
- Would you say you have experienced any hardships or oppression in your life? Does this help you to relate to the story?
- Does the story speak to you personally in your life today, or does it feel like a story about other people from ancient history?
- The Amnon Ribak poem Every Person Needs Egypt (found in the appendix (together with some background and analysis) could be used instead as a hook. Have your students read it in pairs and ask them to address the following questions:
- What do you think the message of this poem is?
- Why do you think Ribak says that “Everyone needs their own Egypt” and “Everyone needs terror and great darkness”?
- Do you relate to this poem? Do you have your personal Egypt?
- Can you relate to the Exodus story better if you have your own Egypt?
- How can you relate to it if you don’t?
- Depict your own Egypt, through art or poetry or drama and share it with the group
Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.
- This first source, a well known quote from the haggada, asks every person to imagine that they themselves have left Egypt. It is quoted by most of the other sources that feature in this lesson as the basis of their approach. But first, let’s find out what your students think this quote means.
- What do you think this quote means?
- How does the seder night help us to do this?
- Why do you think the haggada asks us to do this?
- Katzenelson uses the following important text from the Haggada as an overarching guide to how we should connect and relate to the Exodus narrative: “In each and every generation a person is obligated to see oneself as if they had [personally] come out of Egypt.” He demonstrates how the story has impacted Jews on an individual level, as a moral and ethical inspiration for change. He calls this “personalizing history” and you may wish to encourage your students to find their own personal meaning in the story for their lives today. The following questions may guide them in this (you could use the Concentric Circles technique for this):
- What personal meaning does this source say that Jews have found in the story of the Exodus?
- How has this changed their lives in a practical sense?
What meaning can you find in the story?
- How will this change who you become as a person?
- Rachel Travis struggles to connect to the Exodus story because she feels she has only ever experienced freedom and comfort in her life. But she says it can still be a force for good in our lives, as it can help us appreciate what we have, and therefore be sensitive to those around us who do not have as much. Do your students agree with her approach? You can use these questions to find out (and classroom discussion techniques such as Barometer or Four Corners:
- Do you struggle to relate to the story of the Exodus because you have a life of freedom and comfort?
- How can the Exodus story change us for the better of we have never personally experienced slavery and redemption?
- How does Rachel Travis suggest it can change us for the better?
Do you agree with her?
- Rabbi Twerski gives us several examples of personal enslavement that we (or others we know) may have experienced in our lives. These help us relate to the story, and the story helps give us hope for our liberty and redemption. Do your students relate to any of these examples, and does this help them relate to the story? These questions can direct the conversation (alternatively this could become a written activity using a technique such as Rapid Fire Writing or Think, Pair, Share):
- What examples of personal modern-day slavery does Rabbi Twerski mention?
- Have you or anyone else you know experienced any of these?
- Do you agree this is a type of slavery?
- Do these help you relate to the Exodus story?
- Do you think the Exodus story gives hope to people who are experiencing these things in their lives?
- To demonstrate how we all have some experiences of “slavery” or lack of freedom in our lives, due to our addiction to certain substances or medium, you could ask your students to keep a journal for a week, recording in detail the time they spend each day on their phone, the internet, games console, watching TV, etc. When they complete this, ask those who are comfortable to share their numbers with the class, and ask them:
- Was this a surprise to them? (if so did they expect more or less)
- Would they say they spend too much time on these devices?
- Would they say they are addicted?
- Will they reevaluate how much time they spend on these devices and try and make a change?
- Do they (or anyone else in the class) have any tips how to do this?
- Using one of the following short video clips as a trigger, explore with your students the similarities and differences between addiction and slavery. Draw up a list on the board of similarities and differences.
Amnon Ribak, Every Person Needs Egypt
Works in the Israeli hi-tech industry and is a group moderator for the study of Jewish topics.
Everyone needs to have their own
That they can draw themselves out of
With a strong hand
Or with the grinding of the teeth.
Everyone needs terror and great darkness,
And comfort, promise, and rescue,
That they should know to lift their eyes to the Heavens.
Everyone needs that one prayer
That would always be on their lips.
A person needs to give in [at least] once –
Everyone needs a shoulder.
Everyone needs to have their own
To redeem themselves from it, from the house of slaves,
To go out at midnight into the wilderness of fears,
To march straight into the waters,
To see them part before him unto both sides.
Everyone needs a shoulder,
To carry Joseph’s bones upon it,
Everyone needs to stand erect.
Everyone needs to have their own
And one long trek,
Forever to remember it
In the soles of their feet.
Trans. A. Weschler
Amnon Ribak, Every Person Needs Egypt
Ribak offers an additional understanding to the importance of the Exodus from Egypt in the life of the Jew. Relating Mitzrayim/Egypt to the concept of narrowness mentioned by Brous in a previous lesson, Ribak argues with Travis and feels that every person has experienced at one point or another the feeling of being confined. Even if one cannot feel the pain of slavery, the bitterness of confinement is an experience every person can relate to, just as one can relate to the need to break through the different shackles of life. Recalling those moments in one’s life can make one more empathetic to those who are still in that place. It can also remind one again and again that there is something to look forward to, as people also have the experience of having risen above those constraints.
To hold on to the memory of suffering is a reminder that one must break through the dark moments of life, as there is always a promise of a better tomorrow. Leaving Egypt means leaving behind what binds, walking into the openness of the world beyond.
Many of the words and phrases used by Ribak are based on or inspired by their use in the biblical text. For example,
“That they can draw themselves out of” – Shemot 2:10
“With a strong hand” – Shemot 13:9
“terror and great darkness” – Bereshit 15:12
“To go out at midnight” – Shemot 11:4
So too, at the end of his poem, Ribak refers to Joseph’s bones, which Moshe was sure to take with them when they left Egypt in order to bury them in the Land of Israel (Shemot 13:19). With the picture of where one comes from being as important as the vision of where one is heading, the poet brings together past and future and the role memory plays in getting each person from one to the other.