‘THE JEWISH nation began somewhere in Mesopotamia’: The alleged ‘Abraham house’ in Ur city, Dhi Qar, southern Iraq..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What do we learn from the Exodus?
The first evening of Passover is Seder Night. This evening – which takes place on Friday night this year – is a very special one.
Families gather together around the table, with parents, children and sometimes even more than two generations, and discuss the story of the exodus from Egypt, along with other special commandments of this night: eating matzah, eating bitter herbs and drinking four cups of wine.
The proper way to tell the story of the Exodus has us focus on two themes: First, it should be told in the form of question and answer. It should be a dialogue, not a monologue, so that the listeners are active participants in the creation of the story. Second, the storyteller should “start with disgrace and end with praise” – the story is supposed to start with the sad part and go from there to the joyous part.
The Talmud tells us of an interesting disagreement between Rav and Shmuel – two of the greatest sages of the first half of the 3rd century. According to Shmuel, the disgrace is the slavery in Egypt, and the praise is the wondrous story of the Exodus and the miracles that occurred. But according to Rav, the disgrace we are supposed to talk about goes back many years and centers on the spiritual condition of our forefathers, the ancestors of Abraham our Patriarch who were pagan idol worshipers, in contrast to the state of the Jewish nation after the exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah.
In actuality, the editors of the Haggada combined these two approaches so that it includes the two stories intertwined. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt – and God took us out of there.” Alongside this story, we see the parallel one: “At the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshipers. But now God has brought us near to serve the Lord.” These two narratives are interwoven, giving us two sides of one story: the spiritual aspect and the physical aspect.
The story of the Exodus can be told as a story of redemption from a very low social status: the Jewish nation was enslaved in Egypt. Actually, our ancestors were slaves for a number of generations, until Moses appeared as God’s emissary and conducted complicated negotiations with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. When Pharaoh insisted on not setting the slaves free, God brought the 10 plagues down on Egypt, until after the 10th plague, Pharaoh surrendered and agreed to set the Jewish nation free. This is one way to tell the story, and it is clearly correct.
However, another look gives us a wider perspective on the story. The Jewish nation began somewhere in Mesopotamia when a curious and pensive boy questioned his father’s and his family’s idol worship. This was Abraham, who chose a different path: faith in one God, Whose path is one of charity and justice. Abraham, followed by Isaac and Jacob, were the founding fathers of the Jewish people.
The next stage of the story could be receiving the Torah along with the Promised Land. But this is not the next step. For this, the newly formed nation had to walk a much more complicated route: going down to Egypt, becoming persecuted, enslaved, lacking rights. They had to become familiar with the bitter taste of being strangers, and the joy of being liberated from slavery. Only then was the nation worthy of receiving the Torah and the Promised Land.
The road from idolatrous paganism to monotheistic faith had to be winding, because it is essential for us to understand that the Jewish faith is not only about logic and profound rationality. It deals with man’s personality and deeds, with the question of whether man is focused solely on himself, his aims and his accomplishments, or he is able to leave his egocentric shell to recognize the despair of the other and to walk in God’s path, “Who performs justice for the oppressed, Who gives bread to the hungry; the Lord sets loose the bound” (Psalms 146:7).
On this night, about 3,300 years ago, God appeared in Egypt and announced the liberation of the enslaved Jewish nation – a message that instilled a new spirit in the hearts of the oppressed slaves and turned them from a despairing mob to a proud nation sure of its path, embarking on a new journey toward the Promised Land.
On this night, ever since and to this very day, Jewish families sit around the Seder table and recall the historic story and its significance to our lives, to the lives of each and every one of us; to a life of faith and morality, confidence and responsibility.■The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.
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