(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
In festive-sounding verses of a historic and eternal tone, we read this week of the dramatic and wondrous event of the Exodus from Egypt. These are verses that have been etched in every Jewish heart, echoed in the eternal spirit of the nation, and kept our Jewish heads held high during the thousands of years since the Exodus.
“... and it came to pass in that very day, that all the legions of the Lord went out of the Land of Egypt. It is a night of anticipation for the Lord, to take them out of the Land of Egypt; this night is the Lord’s, guarding all the children of Israel throughout their generations... It came to pass on that very day, that the Lord took the Children of Israel out of the Land of Egypt with their legions.” (Exodus 12:41-51) That same event that took place more than 3,000 years ago was so essential and so influential that its impact affects the day-to-day life of every Jew. Of the 613 commandments mentioned in the Torah, more than 50 were meant to preserve this national memory and nurture every Jew’s personal connection to that ancient story. Every year, every week, and even every day, we encounter mitzvot whose declared purpose is “in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt.”
What was so special about that Exodus from Egypt? Why is it so necessary for every Jew to remember it, so much so that it seems that the very existence of the Jewish nation is dependent on that collective memory? The reason is simple yet profound. On the very day that the Jewish nation left Egypt, the nation was created. If we ask when the Jewish nation was formed the answer would be – during the Exodus from Egypt.
This formation of the Jewish nation was, however, utterly different from the creation of all other nations.
There are three ways in which a nation comes into being: the ethnic origin of a specific tribe, shared culture, or the land where they live. One need not delve into social sciences to see this since already in the Torah these are all mentioned. “These are the sons of Shem according to their families [ethnic origin], according to their tongues [shared culture], in their lands [the land where they live], according to their nations (thus nations were formed).”
In contrast to all the nations that were formed through almost identical processes throughout human history, the Jewish nation was formed differently and actually not through a process but during a specific event. At least two of these three conditions necessary for the creation of a nation were not present when the Jewish nation was formed: The Jewish nation had not yet entered the Land of Israel but was still in Egypt, and likewise, the Jewish nation did not have a unique independent culture but rather was influenced by Egyptian culture. And yet, the Jewish nation was formed.
How, then, did the Jewish nation come into being? The answer to this is one word: choice. The Jewish nation was formed when G-d chose it and liberated it from Egypt. Then, during the Exodus from Egypt, at the moment of choice, the Jewish nation was created. Of course, this choice had justifiable reasons, but the significance of the choice is what sets the Jewish nation apart from the moment of its creation until this very day.
This choice makes the Jewish nation unique and influences both its national and private lives, since every choice has a purpose, and if there is a purpose, there is also a role. This is the big secret behind the choice of the Jewish nation. The nation was formed out of choice and for a specific goal, a goal that is meant to be carried out by the nation, which provides the nation with a role and mission.
Many mistakenly think that the significance of the choice is that it bestows upon the Jewish nation special privileges. This is a mistake, not because no such privileges exist, but because such privileges are a side bar to the story of the choice, versus the main part which is – the role.
And what is the role of the Jewish nation? It is to be “a light unto nations,” to lead all of humanity to faith and values of charity, justice and good deeds which we learn from the Torah, its stories, and its commandments.
This multi-significant role – the direct result of the choice – is a heavy burden upon our shoulders, but we can neither diminish it nor escape it – because it is for this reason that we were chosen.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.