The People & The Book: Advancing with all

Moses’ insistence that all the Jewish people must leave Egypt provides a clear lesson for our leaders today.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE PLAGUES are bringing disaster upon Egypt: hail has just wrecked the crops. Now Pharaoh is really scared, and his servants urge him to send the Hebrews away. “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Ex. 10:7). So he orders Moses and Aharon to be brought before him, and for a moment it seems that this is the end of the Israelite captivity. We are leaving, we are leaving Egypt, the land of our slavery.
Pharaoh says: “Go, worship the Lord your God!” You can almost hear the cries of joy and relief. But the king cannot stop himself: “Who are the ones to go?” (Ex. 10:8).
Moses could have answered this question in many different ways. Maybe the one most expected is a general and vague answer: All of us. To our utmost surprise Moses gives a very detailed answer: “We will all go, young and old; we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord’s festival” (Ex. 10:9). He specifies that the whole people will go. Including children. Including daughters.
Maybe it is so striking to us because the daughters are mentioned explicitly in the Torah. In the majority of cases the Torah says “the sons of Israel” as the collective expression for everybody. And in too many cases we sense that this “everybody” might not really include women and girls. But here Moses claims that the observance of the festival demands the participation of all – the young and the old, the men and the women.
The interpreters of the Torah differ in their understanding of the role of women and minors in the celebration. The medieval Spanish Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra understands Moses is telling Pharaoh that to celebrate the Lord’s festival requires the bringing of sacrifices and that this is a mitzva [commandment] upon all the Israelites.
The 19th century scholar Rabbi Berlin of Volozhin, or Hanetziv, in his commentary “Ha’amek Davar” on Exodus, holds that Moses explicitly mentions the old and the young because they, as well as adult men, must perform the commandment of sacrifices, since otherwise they might be considered exempt. Sons and daughters are mentioned because they must leave Egypt, even though they are not bound by the sacrificial laws.
Moreover, Hanetziv states that festive joy is impossible without sons and daughters.
Along the same lines, the French 13th-century scholar Hizkuni says that the children should be part of the festival, part of the celebration. And the 19th-century commentator Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as the Malbim, adds that the joy of God’s festival should be complete just as the oneness of our God is complete; therefore, the sacrifices and the family enjoyment are one. The delight of family celebration is on the same level as the performance of the sacrifices.
But a question remains – which ‘Lord’s festival’ does Moses have in mind? The Spanish Jewish rabbi Rabbeinu Bahya claims it is Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah and the covenant between the people of Israel and its God. According to Rabbeinu Bahya, Moses does not only want to ensure that the men alone fully participate in the festival. All the people of Israel need to be complete partners in the future covenant with God. Nobody should be left behind.
This is something Pharaoh cannot grasp and does not want to allow. He is ready to let the men go, but not the women and children.
Moses will not be moved – all of us must go.
Moses gives us and our leaders today a very clear lesson: We do not advance leaving anyone behind. Divine worship, the covenant with God, the work and the festival is for all the people, for every group, for the young and for the old, for female and male. We were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh, all of us; therefore, we go out together, all of us, not only the men. Moses’ courageous stand in front of Pharaoh and his refusal to compromise on it are admirable.
We can but wish that our leaders today would learn from this lesson, and include all of us together, as partners in our collective future.
■ Rabbi Alona Lisitsa holds a PhD in Talmud and Ancient Texts from Tel Aviv University, and teaches at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. She is also in charge of rabbinic internship and mentoring at the Israeli Rabbinic program