The Exodus in Egypt and Jewish Ethics
Passover celebrates an historic event – the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt about 3300 years ago. The Torah recounts how God intervened in history, punished the Egyptian slave-masters and took His people – known then as the Hebrews or the Children of Israel — out of Egypt with miracles and wonders. The term Exodus denotes the specific departure of the Hebrews from Egypt. At this time, God created the physical entity known as the Jewish people and paved the way for their transformation into a spiritual entity when they later received the Torah at Mount Sinai. For all of this, we celebrate Passover, give thanks to God, and contemplate the ideas of freedom, Divine intervention and Jewish nationhood.
It is the Eisodus, (entry into Egypt) perhaps more than the Exodus that requires explanation. Why were the Jews sent into exile in the first place? When God foretold to Abraham that his children would be exiled, the Jewish nation did not yet exist. Some commentaries suggest that the years in Egypt were not a punishment for any sin. Rather, they were part of an extremely difficult but necessary process of purification. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were to be the foundation of the Jewish people, therefore it was crucial that the slightest flaws in their personalities be rectified, since even a small defect in the foundation can compromise the integrity of the entire structure. When Abraham asked God to give him a sign that he would eventually inherit Israel (after God had already promised that this would occur), this indicated a lack of perfect faith in God. When Joseph’s brothers exhibited hatred and jealousy towards him this was symptomatic of a lack of unity at the very core of the Jewish people, which continued in Egypt. These and other deficiencies were also present in their descendents and had to be corrected during the course of the exile in and redemption from Egypt. The miraculous redemption awakened their faith in God and their experiences united them as a people.
Some commentators suggest that beyond correcting any inherent flaws, the fledgling nation had to undergo experiences that would enable them to develop the characteristics of a people capable of carrying out God’s mission throughout the centuries. The hardships in Egypt were a training ground for our future; they taught us how to be sensitive to strangers because we were “strangers in Egypt;” how to be considerate of workers and the downtrodden, because we were slaves. The Bible conveys this idea very clearly in the book of Exodus: “And you shall not oppress the stranger because you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
Egypt was thus the crucible in which the Jewish people were refined so that they would be able to fulfill their role, to improve and perfect themselves and the world.
Moreover, we learned that there are parallels between the world as a whole and our experiences in Egypt. Just as we were enslaved in Egypt all human beings are, in a sense, enslaved to the physical realities of the world. We lose sight of the spiritual world – the realities of our own souls – in the harsh glare of what appear to be tangible physical desires. In that sense, slavery is still within us.
It is our task to create harmony between this physical realm and the spiritual. (using the Torah as our guide) We experience “Egypt” also in that people are continually at odds with each other in their struggle for survival. The Egyptian Exile helped us to understand that it should not be this way; that we must create harmony between one person and another.
Another metaphor understood from our Egyptian experience is that in Egypt the Jewish people lived for generations as strangers in a foreign environment: likewise the soul feels estranged in the environment of the physical world. Once we recognize this feeling and understand its source, we can begin to create a world in which the soul is not a stranger; a world in which holiness and God’s presence can be perceived.
Merely remembering the pivotal events of Jewish history or reading about them occasionally is not sufficient to imbue ourselves with these messages. God established Passover and the other festivals as interludes in time designed to focus our attention and pick up on specific ideas and values that the ordinary activities of life usually prevent us from contemplating. They are times when we are totally immersed in a specific concept basic to Judaism. We study the concept, experience it through the observances of the festival, talk about it in our prayers and try to internalize its meaning.
The very name of the holiday conveys an important concept in Jewish thought. Passover is the English translation of the Hebrew word pesach, which means to skip over. It is derived from the last of the Ten Plagues, in which God struck the Egyptian firstborn in every house, but “skipped over” the houses of the Jews. This skipping over was a clear demonstration of God’s Divine Providence, His omniscience and His power over existence itself.
Passover is the classic example of a festival in which we eat, drink and live the ideas that it represents. We modify our home environment by removing all leavened products, we change our diet to eat matzah and avoid all leavened foods. Our prayers are different for this entire week; we refrain from working, and we transform a festive meal into a high-impact, super-charged educational experience — the Seder.
There is no doubt that had the Torah commanded us to simply think about the Exodus for one week a year, no one today would have heard of the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah took the Exodus – the story, the history, the philosophy and the significance — and crystallized it into a multitude of actions, words, foods, songs and prayers. Making the festival experiential, not merely conceptual, ensured the transmission of this vital story from generation to generation and embedded these ideas within the very essence of the Jewish people.