What Does the Exodus Have to Do With It?
Usually, we classify the mitzvot, commandments, of the Torah into commandments that pertain to our relationship with Hashem and commandments that pertain to our relationship with other people. There are some who had a third category, the commandments that govern the relationship between body and soul, in other relationship with the self.
When we think about the commandment to remember the Exodus, we would be inclined to define it as being a a mitzvah between the human and Creator, or maybe a mitzvah that is for the person’s individual development. It is a matter of gratitude and obedience to Hashem, and a reminder that He is involved in history.
It is interesting to note that the Torah seems to blur these categories when it talks about remembering the Exodus. For instance, in Exodus 22, the Torah states, ‘Do not oppress the stranger, do not pressure him, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ In the same chapter it also says, ‘when you find the ox or property of your friend, or a donkey lost, you should return it to him. When you see the donkey of your enemy crushed under its burden you should not refrain from helping him. You must help him. Do not pervert the judgment of a poor person in his argument, in his litigation. Keep yourself distant from lies. Do not kill an innocent person because, G-d says, I will not justify this ever. And do not take a bribe because a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. And do not oppress the stranger because you know the soul of the stranger. You can understand it because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’
When the Torah speaks about relating to strangers, to the poor and to the oppressed, and to dealing justly in business, as in Leviticus 19, the Torah states, ‘when a stranger lives among you, do not oppress him. He shall be treated as a citizen and you shall love him as yourself because you were strangers in Egypt. Do not pervert justice in your weights and your measures. You should have precise and accurate stones to measure things and volume measurements and all this should be accurate, because I am Hashem Who took you out of Egypt’. In these instances, the remembrance of the Exodus, is used to exhort us not to cheat people, and not to oppress a stranger.
Similarly, we are told that if a fellow Jew becomes poverty stricken it is a commandment to lend him money, and not to charge interest. Why? The Torah says, ‘because I am Hashem who took you out of Egypt.’ (Leviticus 25)
In Jeremiah (Chapter 7) the prophet says that when Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt, He didn’t command them regarding sacrifices, or burnt offerings. Rather, He commanded the Jews to listen to His voice, to walk with Him and to act justly. The prophet Michah (Chapter 6) writes, ‘I took you out of Egypt from the house of slavery I redeemed you. …. in order that you should…. do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with Hashem.’
The main lesson of the Exodus seems to be that we are obligated to act with justice and kindness because we were once oppressed slaves and persecuted strangers in the Land of Egypt.
We give thanks to Hashem for taking us out of Egypt, but, as one of my children asked me at the Seder, He put us there in the first place! So why are we thanking Him? – a good question, to which numerous answers have been given. One answer to the question is that the exile and slavery in Egypt were also positive events. To be a Torah nation, the Jewish people need to be just, kind and sensitive. To be the nation who is carrying the laws of Hashem, and who is supposed to be representing Hashem in the world, the Jews must act with compassion toward the stranger, the poor, and the oppressed. Where did the Jewish people absorb these ideas, and when did they become indelibly imprinted on their national consciousness? The answer is, Egypt. The Jews experienced injustice, theft, slavery, and discrimination (unfortunately, many Jews still continue to experience these things). These experiences taught the Jewish people to be sensitive to the stranger, to the oppressed, and to the other.