“And you will tell you child on that day saying, ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.’” (Ex. 13:8) This verse from Parshat Bo has become better-known as part of the Passover Seder. Near the conclusion of the Maggid section of the Seder, we hold up the matzah and point to it and recount that we eat the matzah “because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.”
This is a powerful moment, one that endures in the memory of a child who grows up with it. Why?
In his commentary called the Torah Temima, the early twentieth century scholar Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein observes that this is one of several verses in the Torah involving the word “zeh,” or “this,” which are understood to involve pointing. Earlier in the parsha (Ex. 12:2) God tells Moses and Aaron, “Hachodesh hazeh yihyeh lachem rosh chodashim,” “This month shall be for you the first of the months.” The midrash explains that at that moment God, as it were, pointed to the new moon, since Moses had trouble seeing it. Rabbi Epstein finds other instances in the Torah and Rabbinic legend where the word “zeh” is linked to a moment of pointing.
In all these cases, the pointing becomes an act of symbol interpretation. The moon becomes a symbol for renewal, the matzah becomes a symbol for the enduring truth of the Exodus. By pointing and saying, “See this thing? This thing tells me something,” we do something fundamental to our humanity: We imbue objects with meaning. The philosopher Jean Piaget would say that symbol interpretation of this kind is a key developmental task on a child’s road to maturity. By returning to the matzah every year, we go back to that powerful moment in our own childhoods, when the world was still an enchanted place. We rekindle our childlike sense of wonder and our simple sense of faith.
From the same verse the ancient Rabbis also derived the precept that “in every generation, every person is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt,” since the verse says that this is “because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.” I like to say that my work is often about complicating the simple, and simplifying the complicated. Our Egypts can be complicated places. Perhaps, the Torah tells us, to leave Egypt we have to re-enter childhood.