Commemorating the Exodus from Egypt

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Commemorating the Exodus from Egypt

By Rav Michael Hattin





As Parashat Bo opens, the plagues draw to their devastating close.  Pharaoh and his people have withstood seven wondrous and startling scourges that have struck their river, their land, their animals, and even their bodies with impunity.  While each plague has brought Pharaoh one small step closer to relenting, Moshe's demands have remained utterly unchanged: "Moshe and Aharon came before Pharaoh and they said to him: thus says God the Lord of the Hebrews: 'for how much longer will you refuse to submit to Me?  Send forth My people so that they can serve Me!" (10:3).


Terrified by Moshe's announcement of locusts, Pharaoh's ministers, the very same ones who had so casually dismissed God's earlier threats after they had effortlessly duplicated blood and frogs, clamor around their monarch and plead for the hapless slaves' release.  But the god king will not be moved.  Paralyzed by an adamance of his own making, he cannot bring himself to accede.  His own people, once held in sway by their king's supposed divinity and formerly enthralled by his regal bearing, have now been ironically transformed into captives to his imperious will, and stand condemned with him to suffer the bitter fate of destruction.


Answering a mysterious and silent summons borne by the eastern zephyrs, great black clouds of locusts appear at dawn and rain down on Egypt.  Alighting on tree and branch, grain and flower, they obliterate everything in their path.  The once-verdant countryside, already damaged by the onslaught of the hail, is covered by the winged and wiry bodies of the voracious insects, as the still, desert air is filled with the unmistakable sounds of mastication.


In a weary duplication of his earlier dramatics, Pharaoh hurriedly sends for the Hebrew leaders, pledging compliance if only their God will remove the unbearable blight.  Suddenly, a great wind from the west begins to blow.  The satiated swarms, their abdomens now swollen with the springtime bounty, are abruptly blown towards the eastern Sea of Reeds.  But Pharaoh's heart, though his downcast eyes survey fields and orchards stripped completely bare, remains as hard as unfeeling stone.





Darkness followed, blanketing Egypt with a palpable and dusty gloom, a mocking foretaste of the very underworld that the temple priests of the pantheon daily attempted to fend off with their rote rituals and droning incantations.  Finally, the night of deliverance drew close, the full moon rose, and the last and most terrifying of the plagues was unleashed at midnight.  Soundlessly, the Destroyer stalked the deserted streets, the broad avenue of the sphinxes leading up to Pharaoh's magnificent palace now desolate and abandoned.  The noiseless night that every Egyptian had longed would never fall was suddenly punctuated by dreadful shouts of terror, for all the firstborn of Egypt had been slain.


Pharaoh arose in the night, he and his ministers and all of the Egyptians, for there was a great outcry in Egypt.  There was not a household that did not suffer death.  He called for Moshe and Aharon while yet night and said to them: 'arise, get out from among my people, you and the people of Israel.  Go and serve God as you spoke.  Take also your sheep and cattle as you said and go, and pray for me as well!' (12:30-32).


On the morrow, the unusually bright springtime sunrise heralded the dawn of freedom, as the bustling Israelite throngs made their boisterous way out of the cities.  Masses of people, still wearing their mud-caked garb, pressed forward, accompanied by great flocks of sheep and cattle.  Their meager belongings were borne on laden donkeys, now greatly enhanced by unexpected gifts of gold, silver and raiment from their terrified taskmasters.  On their own shoulders, however, protectively wrapped in swaths of clothing, the people of Israel carried their most precious possession of all: the unleavened cakes, the matzot enjoined by God to forever symbolize their great odyssey from servitude to freedom.





In Jewish history, certainly in Biblical history, the defining moment is the Exodus from Egypt.  It is this passage from slavery to liberation that marks the birth of the nation of Israel and heralds their entry onto the stage of world history.  For that reason, the pivotal episode is writ large and often upon the pages of Jewish tradition.  Many ceremonies and rituals commemorate the Exodus, and not only at the season of Springtime and the holiday of Pesach.  Our Parasha alone contains twenty distinct mitzvot, nine positive and eleven negative, ALL of them relating to the Exodus from Egypt!  Even the Revelation at Sinai, when God gave the Torah to the people of Israel, is regarded as the culmination of the Exodus event. 


For the Ramban (13th century, Spain), the centrality of the Exodus from Egypt finds expression in the Torah's all-embracing legislation as well as in the collective conscience of the people of Israel.  The unique significance of that historical event is a function of its overarching role in deracinating erroneous beliefs and planting in their place true theological principles.  In Egypt, God heard our cries.  He sent Moshe, and He then brought the wondrous plagues upon recalcitrant Pharaoh until the god king relented.  In other words, the redemptive process indicates that the universe has a Creator Who is aware of human beings, interested in their fate, and able to overturn the forces of nature in order to save.  The Exodus from Egypt demonstrates that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, transcendent but never remote, absolute but always close by, and He reveals His will through His prophets and by the words of His Torah.  In the words of the Ramban,


From the time that idolatry entered the world early in human history, opinions concerning belief became confused.  Some deny God outright, claiming that the universe has existed eternally…while others deny His awareness and knowledge of individuals…and yet others acknowledge His omniscience but reject His providence and involvement in human lives, saying that people suffer their arbitrary fates as do the fish of the sea…(these maintain that) there is no punishment or reward (for our actions), for He has left the earth.


When God chooses a congregation of people or an individual and performs on their behalf a miracle that overturns the conventions of nature and its laws, then it becomes clear to all that such opinions are wrong.  The wondrous sign indicates that the universe has a God who created it, who is aware of it, who exercises providence over it, and who is able to intervene.  When the said sign is announced ahead of time by a prophet, then the additional notion of true prophecy is reinforced, namely that God communicates with human beings and makes His will known to His servants the prophets.  The entire Torah is thereby established on solid ground…(commentary to 13:16).





According to the reading of the Ramban, the Exodus from Egypt is the foundation for the entire Torah, because all of the principles concerning God upon which the Torah's moral and ritual laws are based derive their veracity from it.  Insofar as human beings are concerned, there is little difference between no God and a God who is ineffectual, unaware or unconcerned.  In all of the above cases, the impact on human life is negligible.  If God not only exists, but also is aware, able and concerned, then life can have a higher meaning and the moral law can possess a transcendent source.  But if He is unaware, uninvolved or impotent, then serving Him is futile.


But what of the "post-Exodus" generations, all of those men and women who never witnessed the wonders of the liberation from Egypt, whose only experiences of God were of the hidden and concealed God of whom we spoke last week?  What of us?  Addressing them, the Ramban continues:


Because the Holy One Blessed be He will not perform signs and wonders in every generation for the benefit of the wicked or of deniers, He therefore commanded us to make a constant reminder and sign of what we have seen with our own eyes, and furthermore, to transmit that matter to our children and our children to theirs until the end of time…Thus, we are enjoined to write all that we saw of the signs and wonders upon our hands and between our eyes (i.e. tefillin), to write it further upon the doorposts of our homes (i.e. mezuza), to make mention of it in the morning and in the evening (i.e. Shema)…to construct a Sukka every year, and many other such things, all in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.    All of this is to serve later generations as testimony concerning these wonders, so that they never are forgotten, and the denier will never have an opportunity to deny belief in God…


In other words, the events surrounding the Exodus were unique and unrepeatable.  In general, God chooses to not perform overt miracles that involve a suspension of the laws of nature, not because of any lack of ability but rather due to lack of will.  The wicked and the deniers do not sufficiently deserve to merit a plain and explicit expression of God's existence, power and care. 





Thus, the Ramban undermines the popular misconception that the purpose of miracles is to create or to foster belief in God.  Miracles are rather a precious gift, a special and exclusive bestowal that is granted to those who are already steadfast in their faith, as an enhanced expression of His love.  They offer a concrete glimpse of God's absoluteness and are not to be shared with the undeserving.  After all, if miracles were about making us believe, then surely God would not be averse to dispensing them with greater frequency.  Conversely, one who is insensitive to more spiritual matters will not be swayed by miracles, no matter how forceful they are.  Since the overall effect of miracles is not to nurture belief, their absence need not be an impediment to achieving it.


In lieu of miracles, though, those who believe possess a much more potent vehicle for transmitting true conceptions concerning God: memory.  We vividly remember what took place and faithfully communicate it to our children through ritual acts that commemorate those events.  Our children do the same and pass on the matter to their children, and so on until the end of time.


The Exodus is therefore remembered in a wealth of rituals that address every element of our daily lives.  We record its message within the capsules of the tefillin and wear those objects daily, on our heads and upon our arms, in our minds and in our hearts.  We inscribe the matter on the doorposts of our home, just as our ancestors marked their portals with the bright blood of the Paschal sacrifice.  We mention the essence of the story twice daily, when we rise and before we retire, in the course of the recitation of the Shema.  How seemingly difficult it is, then, for the thinking Jew to be forgetful of that great drama, and to fail to internalize its eternal message.  Difficult, but not impossible!





How many of us consciously connect our performance and observance of these rituals with the story of the Exodus?  How many of us are able to progress a step further and to associate the saga of the Exodus with its more fundamental goal of describing God's relationship to the world – His power, His knowledge and His involvement?  No wonder that the Ramban concludes that in order to truly perform the mitzva of mezuza, or any other mitzva act for that matter, one must perform it CONSCIOUSLY:


One who purchases a mezuza for the price of a "zuz" (a relatively small amount), affixes it to his doorpost, AND FOCUSES UPON ITS MEANING, thereby acknowledges the creation of the world, God's knowledge and providence, the notion of prophecy and all of the other cornerstones of the Torah.  All of this, of course, is in addition to realizing God's great compassion upon His followers, for He took us out of that servitude to enjoy freedom and great honor, in the merit of the ancestors who revered His name…


But to perform even that "minor" mitzva consciously is to transform it from a trivial ritual act into a dramatic commemorative event that can very well transform our lives and remake our relationship with God!  A tiny roll of parchment affixed to the doorposts of our homes can embody the Torah's most pivotal and important ideas about God.  These ideas, in turn, are the pivotal elements in guiding our lives towards moral meaning and spiritual substance. The critical keys, then, to unleashing a mitzva's transformative power are deliberation, intent and thoughtfulness.  When shorn of them, our mitzva acts often become static and tedious activities performed by rote, which fail to inculcate much of anything and certainly do not inspire.  But possessed of them, we can yet be successful at not only perpetuating the historical memory of the Exodus, but also internalizing the foundation ideas that lie at its core.


Shabbat Shalom