Going Down to Egypt

Passover celebrates G-d’s taking the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land. But what were the Israelites doing in Egypt in the first place, and how did they get there?

The children of Israel’s trek down to Egypt actually begins with their forefather, Abraham. Abraham was the first person to acknowledge a purely monotheistic G-d. As a consequence, G-d promises to make his descendants into a great nation. The making of a great nation, like the making of anything great, is a complex process. So G-d tells Abraham that in order to become one united nation, his children must experience common suffering that is to include exile, enslavement and persecution in a land that is not theirs. Only then will they come into their inheritance–the land of Canaan (Genesis 15:13).

Three generations later, the descent to Egypt begins with Joseph. Life is often an intricate weave of seemingly negative experiences that in hindsight end up being the perfect solution. When Joseph’s brothers sold him to a band of Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt as a slave, they certainly could not have foreseen that two decades later he would be the Egyptian Viceroy who would save all of Egypt and his own family from starvation. Once all the brothers were reunited, with five more years of famine still ahead of them, Joseph brought his father and the rest of the children of Israel to Egypt (a total of 70 souls) and resettled them in Egypt in the land of Goshen.


In Egypt, Joseph was widely acknowledged as the people’s savior. After Joseph’s death, however, the Bible reports that a new Pharaoh came to power who “did not know Joseph.” Now saying that this new Pharaoh did not know who Joseph was, is like saying a person born in the 1970’s does not know who John F. Kennedy was. Rather it implies that Pharaoh chose not to acknowledge Joseph’s contributions to Egypt’s survival. He and his advisors set out to destroy the Jews, who were flourishing in the land of Goshen. They protested that the Jews were growing far too numerous and that, should there be a war, the Jews would be a fifth column, fighting against them from within.

How does one go about enslaving an entire nation with subtlety? Pharaoh called for a “National Unity Program” in which everyone was to volunteer to help build the new store cities of Pithom and Ramses (something along the lines of a community barn raising). At the beginning of the program, everyone came. Later on,however, only the Israelites came, perhaps to demonstrate how loyal they were to Pharoah. Over time, the one-time volunteers became forced laborers, and Pharaoh demanded of them the same yield that they had produced previously. Thus they were enslaved.

The Israelites lived in Egypt for 210 years, serving for many of those years as slaves. The Egyptians were harsh taskmasters, who relished in being cruel to the Israelites. Beyond the physical labor, the Israelites suffered moral degradation…men were forced to do the work usually done by women, and women were forced to do the work of men. Pharaoh’s astrologers predicted that the Israelites would be saved by a Hebrew boy yet to be born. Pharaoh could not allow this to occur. First he ordered the midwives that when an Israelite woman gives birth, “if it is a boy, you shall kill him, but if it is a girl, she may live” (Exodus 1:16). But the midwives refused to kill the children and told Pharaoh that the Jewish women gave birth without assistance. Pharaoh, however, then took the matter into his own hands and declared to his people: “Every boy that is born, you shall cast into the Nile, but every girl you shall keep alive” (Exodus 1:22).

The Israelite slaves were often forced to stay in the fields, separated from their families, but the women refused to allow their families to be torn asunder. When the men were exhausted from the physical labor and afraid to have children lest their children be killed, the women went out to the fields and “seduced” their husbands so that Israelite children would continue to be born, ensuring the continuity of the people.

Despite the Egyptian efforts to destroy them, the Jewish people continued to grow.
Into this desperate situation, Moses was born. Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved were both from the tribe of Levi. Before the decree to murder the male children, they already had two children, Aaron and Miriam. After the decree to drown every male child was issued, a second son was born, Moses. To save the life of their son, Yocheved put the babe Moses in a basket covered with pitch and set the basket in the Nile. Miriam followed her baby brother as the current carried him toward the bathing pool of Pharaoh’s daughter.
When Pharaoh’s daughter saw that the basket contained a baby boy, she knew that it was a Jewish child, but nevertheless decided to keep him and raise him as her own child. Miriam immediately hurried forth to volunteer Yocheved as a nursemaid for the baby. Thus until he was weened, Moses was raised by a Jewish nursemaid, who was really his mother, before returning to Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses was a full member of the Egyptian court and was regarded by Pharaoh as a grandson. But Moses was also sensitive to the injustices that were being done to his brethren, the Jews. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating a Jew. He saw that there was no one about, and killed the taskmaster in order to save the Israelite’s life. Quickly, before there were any witnesses, he buried the body in the sand. The very next day, however, when he came upon two Jews arguing and tried to stop them, they threatened Moses by saying: Do you wish to kill us as you killed the Egyptian? Realizing that if even these two Israelite slaves knew of his actions, then so did Pharaoh.

Moses fled Egypt to Midian where he met Tzippora, the daughter of Jethro (a former high priest of Midian who had turned to monotheism). After marrying Tzippora, Moses became one of Jethro’s shepherds and lived a pastoral and peaceful life…but not for long.

One day, while shepherding the flocks, Moses followed a stray lamb and came upon a bush surrounded by flames, yet the bush was not consumed by the fire. At the burning bush (which was located on Mount Sinai), G-d first spoke to Moses and instructed him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of slavery. Moses, however, did not believe that he was the right person for the task…after all, he had a speech impediment, and he had an older brother who was perhaps more appropriate for the job. But G-d had chosen Moses, and so Moses went back to Egypt where his older brother Aaron served as his spokesman.

Redemption From Slavery

Taking the Jews out of Egypt was no easy task. G-d warned Moses that Pharaoh’s heart would be hardened. In fact, after Moses and Aaron’s first visit to Pharaoh’s palace, Pharaoh ordered an increase in the workload of his slaves. The slaves would now be responsible for supplying their own straw for the manufacture of bricks. The Israelites groaned under the weight of their oppression and accused Moses and Aaron of making things worse.

But G-d strengthened Moses, and told him that now he would soon see the strength of G-d, which would result in Pharaoh’s freeing the Hebrews.

Now that Pharaoh had hardened his heart and refused to let the Israelites go, G-d could bring down his wrath upon Egypt. While it is true that G-d had told Abraham that his descendants would serve another people, and the Egyptians were therefore only fulfilling G-d’s command, they had gotten carried away with their divine role and were wicked and vicious beyond the call of duty.

When Moses and Aharon next went to the palace to request freedom for their brethren and were refused, G-d turned the Nile River into blood. Each of the subsequent nine plagues followed the pattern: Moses and Aharon requested permission to leave, Pharaoh refused, Egypt and the Egyptians were smitten with a plague, while the Israelites were spared. The Egyptians would then cry out, and Pharaoh would beg for mercy and agree to let the Israelites go. Then Pharaoh would change his mind, and the next cycle would begin.

What exactly were the ten plagues?

BLOOD – The Nile River turned to blood. But it wasn’t just the river that turned to blood, it was all the water in Egypt. People would go to get something to drink from their barrels of stored water, but it had turned to blood. People would take a drink from what they thought was a clean source, and it would be blood. However, when an Israelite took water from the same source, it would remain water. The plague of blood was particularly distressing to the Egyptians because they worshiped the Nile.

FROGS – The land of Egypt was overrun by frogs. This may not seem like a big deal at first glance, after all, some people think frogs are cute, but the frogs were truly everywhere! There were frogs in the beds, frogs in the cupboards, frogs in the pots, even frogs in the oven. And whenever the Egyptians would hit a frog in order to kill it, the Midrash tells us, that the frog would split into two, producing even more frogs.

LICE – To initiate the plague of lice, G-d commanded Aharon via Moshe to hit the ground with his staff. The dust on the ground turned to lice and spread throughout Egypt.

WILD BEASTS – “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Wild animals of all sorts crossed over the borders of Egypt and ravaged the land. The Egyptians couldn’t leave their homes, for fear of being attacked, yet the wild animals would walk right past the Israelites without harming them.

PESTILENCE – The Egyptian cattle that had survived the ravaging of the wild beasts, were struck with pestilence and died. No Jewish owned cattle died, even those in close proximity to the Egyptian cattle. The first five plagues taught the Egyptians that their possessions were lost and their wealth ephemeral.

BOILS – From head to toe, the Egyptians were covered with painful boils.

HAIL – The hail storm of the seventh plague was a “fireworks” display of G-d’s power. The hail consisted of baseball-sized chunk of ice accompanied by fiery lightening. The physical destruction was immense.

LOCUSTS – Not much was left of Egypt by the time the plague of locust arrived. The cattle were dead, the buildings destroyed, morale was low, and then the locusts arrived. An enormous swarm darkened the sky and devoured anything that remained of the crops.

DARKNESS – For three days, total darkness descended on Egypt. The Sages taught that the darkness was so intense that it served as a physical restriction as well, leaving the Egyptians unable to move. The Jews, however, could see where they were going and were unaffected by the darkness.

DEATH OF THE FIRST BORN – By the time Pharaoh was threatened with the final plague–the death of all the firstborn of Egypt, his nation was begging him to release the Israelites. But Pharaoh was obstinate, and would not let them go. The night that the first born Egyptians died is the first night of Passover. Indeed, this was the only plague for which the Jews needed to prepare themselves so that they would not be harmed. In order to be “passed-over,” Moses instructed the Israelites to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood. And in the darkness of the midnight hour, G-d smote all of the first born in the land of Egypt.

Crossing the Sea of Reeds

Pharaoh now demanded that Moses lead the Israelites out of his land immediately! The people quickly gathered their belongings, including the bread that had not had sufficient time to rise, the matzah, and hurried forth into the wilderness.

Once the Israelites had left, however, Pharaoh, looking out over his destroyed land, grew angry, and changed his mind. Calling forth his army of chariots, he set out after the Israelites.

Three days later, the Israelites were stopped dead in their tracks. Before them lay the waters of the Sea of Reeds (also called the Red Sea). Mountains loomed on either side. And behind them was the swiftly approaching army of the Egyptians. There was nowhere to turn, there was simply nowhere to go, so the Israelites…screamed at Moses.

“Aren’t there enough graves in Egypt? We should have stayed there,” they shouted. Indeed some of the people even suggested turning around and returning to Egypt. Moses pleaded with G-d for assistance, and G-d instructed him to tell the people to travel forth. When they arrived at the water, G-d told Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea and it would split. Moses did so. He instructed the people to go forward, but they hesitated. One man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah, stepped forward and waded into the sea. The water came to his waist, to his shoulders, to his chin, but he continued forward as Moses stretched out his arm over the water. As the water reached Nachshon’s lips, the sea burst apart, providing a stretch of dry land on which the Israelites were able to cross.

The Israelites hurried across the sea, but the Egyptians were close behind. No sooner had the last Israelite stepped out of the sea, when G-d instructed Moses to once again stretch out his hand over the sea, and the water came crashing down.
The Egyptians, in their mighty chariots, were crushed in the swirling waters. According to the Midrash only one Egyptian survived, Pharaoh. The sea spit Pharaoh out on the far side of the water so that he could witness both the destruction of his own people, and bear testimony to the redemption of the Israelites.

Moving Forward

From the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites continued into travel into the wilderness of Sinai. There, gathered at the base of Mount Sinai, the same spot when G-d appeared to Moses in the burning bush, the People of Israel received the Torah from G-d and were forged into a great and a holy nation….
And that is why we celebrate Passover.


The holiday of Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt which led to the birth of the Jewish nation at Sinai. The Passover Seder, which is held on the first (and second night outside of Israel) of Passover, is perhaps the most widely observed Jewish practice. This outline will provide you with the basics of the Passover holiday, laws and customs.

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