“The Exodus–A ‘Primitive’ Story with Revolutionary Implications”
(updated and revised from Va’eira 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Jewish history is often perceived, with great justification I might add, as one unending series of tragedies, pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, crusades, destructions, exiles, and ultimately, Holocausts. As we read in the Passover Haggadah: שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, In every generation they (our enemies) rise up to destroy us.

Even a cursory review of the Jewish calendar, will confirm this stark perspective. The counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, recalls the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died during that 49-day period. Most of the Jewish fast days serve to mark the process of the destruction, or the actual destruction, of the two Temples. Purim, yes, the joyous festival of Purim, celebrates the fact that the Jews were at the very precipice of destruction by Haman, and were miraculously saved. And, of course, even Passover, with the awesome Ten Plagues and the miraculous splitting of the Reed Sea–how wondrous! But Jewish children were cast into the sea, and plastered into the walls by the Egyptians when the Hebrews failed to produce the sufficient number of bricks! On Passover we speak of גָּלוּתGalut–exile, עַבְדוּתavdut–enslavement, and of עִנּוּיinui–persecution.

And so it is, because of the constant stream of tragedies, that, at times, we Jews feel like just throwing up our hands in desperation and crying out: Who needs it? לֹא מִדִּבְשֵׁךְ וְלֹא מֵעֻקְצֵךְ! “Please, Al-mighty, enough of your honey, and enough of your sting!”

But this perception is incorrect!

Jewish history is really one unending series of moral, educational, and ethical triumphs and victories, but we fail to perceive it! We fail to recognize the untold revolutionary contributions that Judaism has made to humanity. To the contrary, too often we perceive Judaism as negative and overwhelming.

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, continues the narrative concerning the Children of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, leading to the ultimate redemption from Egypt. At first glance, it appears to be a simple, almost primitive, story. Moses, the stammerer and the murmurer, becomes a great leader. The various plagues–blood, frogs, lice, boils are visited upon the Egyptians–how infantile! Pharaoh hardens his heart!

Yes, it’s a great story: It features suspense–Moses the babe is hidden in the bulrushes! There’s drama—he’s saved by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Heroism–Moses saves the Jew’s life by killing the Egyptian. There’s treachery–a Jew threatens to squeal on Moses, and Moses must flee from Egypt to Midian. There’s romance–Moses meets Tzipora at the well in Midian. Supernaturalism–the burning bush is not consumed. The hero is saved at the last moment–Tzipora circumcises Eliezar when G-d wants to kill Moses for not circumcising the child. There’s even comedy–Pharaoh, according to the commentaries, is caught in a compromising position with his pants down at the riverside, as Moses and Aaron confront him. Admittedly, there’s not much racy material that would qualify for a contemporary Hollywood script, except perhaps the Midrash’s account of the affair of Shlomit bat Divri and the Egyptian. But there’s plenty of violence, wild animals, and of course, the death of a firstborn. There’s underwater drama–the drowning in the Reed Sea–some of the Egyptians drown as stubble, some as stone, and some as lead. What a story! But will it play in Peoria? It seems to be rather puerile, brutal, and unduly cruel.

And so, we ask: What is the nature of our proud Jewish religion? What is the meaning of the story upon which much of our faith is based?

There is a story, that has been floating around the internet for many years, probably apocryphal, and hardly PC today, about two women from York, Pennsylvania, who came to the Big Apple for a shopping spree, and stayed at the Plaza Hotel. This was before Giuliani became Mayor, and they were, of course, justly terrified that they would be victims of a crime during their stay in the city. So, they locked and chained their hotel door securely that night, and propped a chair up against the doorknob for added safety. They tossed-and-turned the entire night, consumed with dread fear of what lay in store for them the next day.

In the morning, when they were ready to go down for breakfast, they listened at the door to make certain that there was no one in the hallway. Fearfully, they gathered enough courage to tiptoe down the hallway and press the elevator button. The elevator door opened, and standing in the elevator, was a huge black man with a big white dog. The black man said, “Sit Whitey,” and the two ladies sat right down on the floor!

The reaction of these two women recalls the response of the ten scouts who brought back a negative report upon their return from their mission to Canaan. They said (Numbers 13:33): וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם, “We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, as pigmies, and so the people of the land perceived us–as pigmies.”

We Jews are often so completely consumed by fear and trepidation, that we forget about the incredible positive and joyous parts of Jewish tradition and Jewish history.

This must change! We must communicate an upbeat message about our faith, especially to our young people, and to ourselves, as well. We have so much of which to be proud. There is a spectacular, revolutionary beauty in Yiddishkeit, but we fail to perceive it, and certainly fail to communicate it.

Is the story of Egypt that is recorded in the Bible, cruel insensitive, and unduly harsh? Can a faith system that teaches that Moses was not permitted to strike the water to inaugurate the plagues of blood and frogs upon Egypt because Moses the babe was saved by the water–can it be cruel? Neither could Moses heave the sand in order to effect the plague of lice, because he hid the Egyptian’s body in the sand, which saved Moses from retribution. Can a tradition that is so sensitive to “sand,” be justly perceived as being cruel, insensitive, and unduly harsh? After all, it is this same tradition which teaches that Jews who celebrate at the seder must remove a drop of wine each time we mention the name of one of the ten plagues, because Egyptians suffered in our liberation. It is this tradition, that teaches us that we may not say the full Hallel on Passover, because the Al-mighty says: מַעֲשֵֹה יָדַי טוֹבְעִים בַּיָּם וְאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים שִׁירָה, “that human beings, as guilty as the Egyptians were, the creations of G-d, are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing “Shira”– songs of praise, to Me?” Can such a tradition be cruel and uncaring? No, to the contrary, it’s revolutionary. It exudes wisdom, understanding and unparalleled mercy.

There’s no other faith tradition that teaches such boundless kindness, even at times of war, even when Jewish soldiers’ lives are at stake. וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ לְשָׁלוֹם, (Deuteronomy 20:10)–Jewish law insists that we must greet the enemy with peace and allow them to flee, that we are not permitted to chop down fruit bearing trees, or divert waterworks, even in times of battle. These are the teachings that we must learn to appreciate and eagerly communicate. These are lessons that inspire!

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is by no means a simple or simplistic story. Even the structure of the ten plagues themselves reflect exile, servitude and persecution of the Egyptians in retribution for what the Egyptians did to the Hebrew slaves. Similarly, the origins and the character of Moses are unique and edifying.

The traditions of Passover teach us that we must accept the dominion of G-d upon us, and that Judaism provides a most effective structure for our People. Furthermore, from Passover we learn to celebrate חַג הָאָבִיב–“Chag Ha’aviv,” the festival of the springtime, showing ultimate respect for our environment–that we Jews must keenly “guard” the land, and “work” the land (Genesis 2:15). It teaches us that every seven years the land must rest (Leviticus 25), and be given a chance to regenerate. This is our tradition. It teaches us the incredible idea of Chag, the concept of a “joyous” holiday. It tells us that Moses says to Pharaoh, בִּנְעָרֵינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵינוּ נֵלֵך, (Exodus 10:9), “We must go forth with our young and with our old,” בְּבָנֵינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵנוּ, “We must go with our sons and with our daughters,” כִּי חַג השׁם לָנוּ, “because this is a festival for us all!” It underscores the importance of celebrating together as a family. This is our faith!

We have so much of which to be proud, and we must let the world know. But the only way we will be in a position to let the world know is if we study and thoroughly familiarize ourselves with the story and the meanings behind the Exodus saga. It’s revolutionary!

Now, let us go forth and share it with the world!

May you be blessed.