“Remembering the Exodus From Egypt”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Because next Monday night, March 25th, is the first night of Passover, this week’s message will focus on the festival of Passover, rather than on this Shabbat’s weekly parasha, Tzav. (Those who wish, may access the insights into parashat Tzav from previous years in the parasha archives.)

The mitzvah (commandment) to remember the Exodus from Egypt is a fundamental principle of Judaism. In fact, it is the first of the six prominent “Mitzvot of Remembering” that are recited daily, after morning prayers.

The Bible, in Deuteronomy 16:3, states, “L’mah’ahn tiz’kor eht yom tzay’t’chah may’eretz Mitzrayim, kol y’may chah’yeh’chah,” So that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt, all the days of your life. In fact, there is a prominent discussion in the Haggadah concerning whether the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt applies only during the day, or at night, as well.

The frequent repetition of the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus is intended to embed in the hearts and minds of every Jew the idea that since G-d once redeemed Israel from great slavery, all Jews must have confidence in the coming of the Ultimate Redemption. Therefore, even though Jews recall the Exodus from Egypt twice a day when reciting the Shema prayer, it is, nevertheless, incumbent upon them to remember it at all times to reinforce every Jew’s faith in the future redemption.

The theme of the exodus from Egypt is virtually ubiquitous in Judaism. It is no coincidence that the exodus from Egypt is prominently featured in the very first statement of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2), “I am the L-rd, your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Jews are bidden (Numbers 15:40-41) to recall the Exodus from Egypt when they look at their Tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of their garments. The Sabbath itself (Deuteronomy 5:15) serves as a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. All the major holidays, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, serve as commemorations of the Exodus from Egypt. In the Shabbat Friday evening kiddush, Jews recite the phrase, “T’chee’lah l’mik’ra’ay kodesh, zay’cher lee’tzee’aht Mitzrayim,” The Sabbath is the first of all that is called holy, as a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.

What is it about the Exodus from Egypt that resonates so deeply in the Jewish soul? Citing his mentor Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, Reb Naphtali of Ropshitz underscores the importance of remembering by declaring that the remembrance of the Exodus is the first and foremost call to inspire a person to grow in holiness.

Rav Asher Weiss, in his commentary on the Haggadah, notes that the enslaved Jews of Egypt had reached such a low level of impurity, that the angel who had been assigned to cause the waters of the Red Sea to inundate the Egyptians, complained that it was unfair to drown the Egyptians in order to save the Jews, since they both worship idols. “Why do you save the Jews,” the angel protested, “but destroy the Egyptians?” (The Zohar, II:170b).

The Talmud, in Yoma 75b, records that “the Jews in Egypt [were so degraded, that they] ate like chickens, pecking around in garbage heaps, until Moses came and arranged for them a fixed schedule for meals.”

As we have already noted on a number of occasions, the Jewish slaves in Egypt participated in what was known as “Zevach Ha’dam,” the celebration of blood. When the Israelite slaves completed their work each day, their Egyptian masters seduced them to participate in huge orgies, where masters and slaves would drink immense amounts of wine as they enjoyed the spectacle of gladiators fighting animals and gladiators battling one another. At the end of the night, both masters and slaves would descend to the floor of the stadium to devour the remains of both humans and animals and drink their blood. Tradition maintains that, had the Jews descended one more level, to the fiftieth level of impurity, they would not have been redeemed.

And yet, notes Rav Asher Weiss, in one swift moment at the Red Sea, G-d redeemed His people, splitting the waters on either side. The Midrash Mechilta (Beshalach 3) insists that the power of the Divine Presence was so great at that moment, that what a maidservant saw prophetically at the Red Sea, even the greatest prophets, like Isaiah and Ezekiel the son of Buzi, would not see in the future.

It is the merciful act of G-d, lifting His undeserving people up from the ash heap (reference to Hallel, Psalms 113:7), that we recall each day. Recalling the merciful G-d serves to inspire the people with hope for the future and instill confidence in the coming redemption, even among those who may be in the midst of enduring degrading slavery.

The rabbis submit that the slavery in Egypt was intended to not only cause physical pain to the Israelites, but was actually calculated to break the people’s spirits. The Torah describes the enslavement, in Exodus 1:13, “Vah’yah’ah’vee’doo Mitzrayim et B’nay Yisrael b’pharech,” The Egyptians made the Jewish people work “with rigor.” Hebrew has no word for slavery. The word, “Eh’ved,” means only worker. In order to indicate that the Egyptians made the Israelites work with rigor, the Torah adds the adverbial, “B’pharech,” with backbreaking rigor and difficulty, underscoring Pharaoh’s design to break the Israelites’ bodies.

The rabbis also highlight an alternate meaning to the word “B’pharech,” breaking the single Hebrew word into two words, “Phe” and “Rach,” meaning “soft mouth.” The Egyptians at first tricked the Israelites into performing rigorous labor by calling upon their sense of civic duty, urging them to help the economy and the civilization of Egypt by volunteering to build the storehouses of Pitom and Ramses. Only later did the labor become mandatory.

The Midrash in Sotah 11b, also asserts that the Egyptians assigned “women’s work” to men, and “men’s work” to women, again, to break their spirits, making the Israelite slaves feel that they were no longer the same person that they had been before.

Because he was concerned that the Jewish people would be distracted by Moses’ messages of freedom, Pharaoh decreed that the Jews would no longer be given straw and insisted that the Israelites maintain the same quota of bricks that they had produced previously. Why did Pharaoh make the Hebrew slaves collect the straw, rather than just doubling the quota of bricks that they had to produce, which would have given Pharaoh much more “bang for his buck!?”

Making the Israelite slaves search for straw was a way of breaking their spirits. That is why Jewish law (Maimonides, Laws of Servitude 1:6-7), forbids a master to say to a servant, “Dig this hole until I return.” He may say, dig for two hours or dig for twenty feet, but making a slave perform servile work just to keep the servant busy, is forbidden.

Rabbi Zev Leff, in his insights on the weekly portion, notes that, “Pharaoh understood that nothing so diminishes a person as seeing no purpose to his activity, no result, in which he can take pride.” Rabbi Leff points out that the “ahray miskanot,” the storehouses (Exodus 1:11), that the Jews were told to build, can be translated to mean “pitiful cities.” The Midrash describes these cities as having been built on foundations of sand, which were toppled over as soon as they were completed, only to be rebuilt again. Doubling the workload that was assigned to each Israelite without doubling their production of bricks, was exactly what Pharaoh wanted in order to make the Hebrews feel wasted, useless and unproductive.

For many people, work can be a most exhilarating and uplifting enterprise. In fact, most Americans are so proud of their professions that they often identify themselves by their work. “I am a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor,” rather than identifying oneself as a parent, a husband, a wife, a son or daughter. Work in our times has become a 24/7 calling. Fortunately, many who work feel productive, earning the wherewithal to support themselves and their families and hopefully contributing to the betterment of the world. It is related that a prisoner in the Gulag discovered, after he was released, that the handle that he had been ordered to turn for years in order to grind the flour on the other side of his prison chamber was connected to nothing. The realization that he had labored for nothing was more crushing than the ten years of imprisonment.

It was in Egypt that the Jews learned the pain of a purposeless life. It is precisely because Jews remember the Exodus from Egypt that they are expected to live productive, rewarding and meaningful lives, and to learn to treasure every precious moment of life.

It is by remembering the Exodus from Egypt that Jews also gain hope for the future. It is by remembering the Exodus from Egypt that Jews commit themselves to purposefulness, to perfecting the world under the rule of the Al-mighty, and to commit themselves to serve as partners in creation with the Al-mighty, in order to heal the sick, sustain the poor, feed the hungry, and educate the illiterate.

These are the values that Jews celebrate on the Passover holiday. These lessons, 3300 years old, must be as fresh in every Jew’s mind as they were back then. It could very well be that they are even more meaningful today than ever before.

Wishing you all a very Happy and Healthy Passover.

May you be blessed.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year (2013) on Monday night, March 25th, and continues through Tuesday and Wednesday, March 26th and 27th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, March 31st, and continues through Monday and Tuesday, April 1st and 2nd. For more information see NJOP’s website.