Avadim Hayinu - When Jews Were Slaves in Egypt

Haggadah Section: Maggid - Beginning

Jews annually tell the story of yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, as a reminder that their ancestors were enslaved in a land not their own. The classical Ashkenazi Haggadah text goes even further. It declares that:

ְ Be'chol dor va’dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatzah miMitzrayim

“In every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt."

More than just ritual observance, we are directed to feel what it might have been like to escape from slavery to remind us how our ancestors stood strong against injustice. The Seder also serves to remind us that the fight against oppression is not exclusive to Jews or only lives in the past; people of all backgrounds and creeds have been stripped of their freedom throughout history, and many fight for it still today. The Exodus story asserts unapologetically that oppression can and must end, and that, just as our ancient ancestors fought for us, we Jews have a duty to continue the fight against injustice wherever it exists.

Until only about 100 years ago, most Jews lived in Europe, where they were often persecuted for their religion and culture. Their lives were filled with terror and oppression, but, fortunately, many Jewish families were able to move to America, a place where they could live without the fears they experienced in their homeland. By the thousands, and then by the millions, year after year, they left all they had ever known to embark on a dangerous voyage for the shores of the United States, where many found "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The tale does not end as happily for every culture, however. Even now in the 21st century, the struggle for freedom continues for others. This evening, as we celebrate our own liberation, let us take notice of the on-going struggles toward liberty here and in many other parts of the world.

Four centuries ago, African people were kidnapped from their homelands, stripped of their liberties, history and culture, and forced to live as slaves here in America. They longed for freedom, and were inspired by the story of Moses and the ancient Israelites; when they sang the popular spiritual "Go Down Moses," they were thinking of their own leaders who were working to end slavery: In the song "Israel" represents the African-American slaves while "Egypt" and "Pharaoh" represent the plantation and slavemaster respectively. After gaining their freedom, however, they still faced oppression and discrimination, much of it legally enforced by cities, states and the federal government. Even now, roughly 50 years after the abolition of those laws, the damage slavery inflicted continues to affect many African-Americans, and many still face prejudice simply because of the color of their skin.

Oppression reaches beyond race and religion, however. Not long ago here in the United States, our LGBT friends and family of all creeds were unable to live their lives openly and without discrimination; many men and women were attacked or even murdered for their orientation. Today, while progress has been made to treat the LGBT community fairly in America and across the globe, many individuals still face discrimination and danger or even death, simply because of their identity, orientation and who they choose love.

There are countless other examples of oppression and the fight for liberty: Japanese internment camps during World War II, the Civil Rights movement, the numerous drives for women's equality throughout the 20th century, the present Black Lives Matter movement, etc. The freedom we honor tonight is not only freedom from slavery; it is also the freedom to live in peace, with dignity and hope for a bright future. Tonight, think about how you have been oppressed, as well as who you have oppressed and how. We have all stood by and watched oppression take place, even if we ourselves were not the ones perpetrating it, and in that regard even our inaction is a form of oppression. Our communal stories of injustice should propel us forward into the fight for the full equality and humanity of all those around us who are less privileged and face discrimination in any form, especially when they call on us for solidarity.

As Jews and, more importantly, as humans, we have an obligation to defend freedom. Let us remember that the thirst for freedom exists in all people, and pledge to fight for everyone's right to it.

Leader: Avadim Hayinu – We were once slaves.

Everyone: We remember our histories, we acknowledge our pasts.

Leader: Atah b’nei horin – Now we are free.

Everyone: We have a responsibility to fight for justice for all.


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