Passover: God’s Calling Card.
The purpose of the Exodus was to establish a personal, loving relationship between God and the Jewish People, including every individual Jew.
Jenny Weisberg grew up in an assimilated, upper-middle-class Jewish home in Baltimore. She was totally disinterested in Israel, the Jewish state. For her, New Jersey was a Jewish state. She attended afternoon Hebrew school until the age of ten, one day a week learning Hebrew and one day a week learning “Jewish culture.” In her junior year of college, she spent a semester in Indonesia.
There, her best friend, Pippin, was a devout Muslim. Pippin would change into white clothes and pray five times a day. One day she asked Jenny, “I’ve never seen you pray. Don’t Jews pray?”
Jenny, with the benefit of four years of Hebrew school plus Bat Mitzvah lessons, answered, “We’re only allowed to pray once a week, and only on Saturday mornings, and only if there’s a synagogue. There’s no synagogue here, so I’m not allowed to pray.”
Aghast, Pippin replied, “Really? Then don’t you miss God?”
Jenny was dumbfounded by the question. A month and a half later she was in Jerusalem where she embarked on her journey of learning about and practicing Judaism. Today she prays every day, in her Jerusalem home or in the nearby forest. She is the creator and life force of the popular website https://jewishmom.com/
How Not to Miss God
The Jewish answer to “Don’t you miss God?” is Passover. The sages call Passover, “the holiday of Emunah.” Emunah, usually translated as “faith in God,” is actually more knowing than believing. It is more like your knowing that your mother is your mother than your knowing that George Washington was the first president of the United States.
When God introduced Himself to the Jewish people in the revelation at Mt. Sinai, He did not introduce Himself as the Creator of the world, stars, and galaxies, which would have been an impressive moniker. He did not introduce Himself as the sole operative force in the universe, who sustains every breath and heartbeat, which would have been a remarkable calling card. Instead, He chose to introduce Himself as, “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
What is the big deal about the Exodus that God chose to define Himself like that? The Exodus is mentioned in the Kiddush recited every Shabbat and in the Grace after Meals, both seemingly unrelated to the liberation from slavery. There is actually a mitzvah of the Torah to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day. Even the most monumental historical event loses its impact over time. Why is the Exodus to be recalled perpetually over the millennia?
Who Is the God of the Exodus?
Both of the second-person references in the statement, “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” are in the Hebrew singular. “Your God,” singular, the God of you as an individual, connoting a personal relationship. “Who took you” out of slavery means, “I intervene in your life for your benefit.” The message of this, the first of the Ten Commandments, is: I am connected to you in a personal, loving relationship and I manipulate events for your ultimate benefit.
This is how God wants to be known by us.
You may have seen Moses wielding his staff throughout the Ten Plagues and at the Sea of Reeds, but God is the unseen power Whose commitment to you and caring for you freed you from slavery.
This is why the Hagaddah, the story of the Exodus recited at the Passover Seder, does not mention Moses, the great liberator and miracle worker. The Hagaddah makes it clear: You may have seen Moses wielding his staff throughout the Ten Plagues and at the Sea of Reeds, but God is the unseen power Whose commitment to you and caring for you freed you from slavery. As the Hagaddah states: “Hashem our God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Make no mistake: Even the most powerful human being is but an agent of God.
Passover celebrates God’s love for us. That is why the Song of Songs, the Bible’s great love poem, is read on Passover.
But Who Put Us into Slavery?
A story is told about Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah: A new student at Aish came to see Rabbi Weinberg. The student explained that he had come to learn about his Jewish roots because God had done a miracle for him. He had been riding his motorcycle on a curvy mountain road and the motorcycle went off the edge, plunging many meters, but he had emerged unscathed. “God saved me,” the young man said. Rabbi Weinberg replied, “And who pushed you off the mountain?”
Extolling God for the miracles of the Exodus begs the question: If God is the only operative force in the universe, how could He have permitted the torturous slavery? While human beings have free will in the moral realm and are accountable for their actions, which is why the Egyptians were punished for their cruel, sadistic treatment of the Israelites, nothing actually transpires without the Divine willing it or permitting it.
God is the chess master; His moves are in response to our moves. Let’s look at the history of the Children of Israel in Egypt. When the patriarch Jacob and his children and grandchildren went down to Egypt, they came as the honored guests of Pharaoh himself. Jacob’s son Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt. His clan was given fertile land in Goshen (known to archeologists as Avaris) in the Nile Delta. They prospered, multiplied, and succeeded in Egyptian society.
Ancient Egypt was the longest-lived empire the world has ever known. As Dr. Racheli Shalomi-Hen, professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes ancient Egypt:
The same people lived in the same place, spoke the same language and believed in the same gods for more than 3,000 years… Egypt in the New Kingdom (1550-1059 BCE) was the most important political power in the region, forming an empire that stretched from the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in the south, in the heart of Africa, to the Euphrates in the northeast… Egypt’s large cities attracted people from all over the known world, and many languages and cultures mixed in its streets. 1
In short, Egypt was the Big Apple of its time. Little wonder that the Israelites admired and assimilated into its cosmopolitan society. They hobnobbed with its upper class and worshipped its gods. Over a century after the Israelites emigrated to Egypt, a “new Pharaoh” perceived this burgeoning, successful group as a strategic threat, a possible fifth column should war break out. The accusation of the Jews’ disloyalty to their adopted country started in ancient Egypt. Pharaoh and his advisors devised a strategy. They called on the Israelites to show their patriotism by volunteering for public construction projects. The volunteering soon turned to conscription, then slavery.
Like Spain in the 15th century and Germany in the 20th century, the only thing that stopped total Jewish assimilation was the host government itself turning on the Jews.
Yet God had told Abraham centuries before, “Your offspring will be strangers in a land not their own. They will serve them and they will oppress them.” [Gen. 15:13]. Apparently, slavery was in the Divine plan. Why? What could suffering imprint on the Jewish DNA that success could not?
While this is a matter for deep reflection, I will advance one answer: Compassion for those who suffer. The sages of the Talmud declared that compassion is so inherent in the Jewish character that if a Jew does not evince the trait of compassion one can legitimately doubt that he or she is a Jew. Such compassion explains why Jews have been at the forefront of all social movements. It also explains why Jews throughout history are noted for more charitable giving than their non-Jewish compatriots. As Mark Twain observed:
The Jew is not a burden on the charities of the state or of the city; these could cease from their functions without affecting him. When he is well enough, he works; when he is incapacitated, his own people take care of him. And not in a poor and stingy way, but with a fine and large benevolence. His race is entitled to be called the most benevolent of all races of men. 2
A 1983 Wall Street Journal article noted: “The United Jewish Appeal raises more each year than the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Muscular Dystrophy Association, March of Dimes and National Easter Seal Society combined.” 3 Such magnanimous Jewish giving is not limited to Jewish causes. A 1987 study found that “Jews are slightly more likely to make some kind of contribution to a non-Jewish philanthropy than to a Jewish philanthropy.” 4
The Reason for the Exodus
In the Torah itself, God clarifies the reason for the Exodus: “I am Hashem your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, in order to be God to you” (Deut. 11:21). The purpose of both the slavery and the Redemption was to establish a relationship between God and the Jewish People, including every individual Jew. At Mt. Sinai, God codified that relationship as the first of the Ten Commandments: Have faith in Me, in My caring for you, and in My involvement in your life.
This does not mean that God will give you a winning lottery ticket. It does mean that God will do what is ultimately best for your spiritual rectification, which is the purpose for which your soul descended into this physical world.
The college-age, un-praying Jenny did not miss this God, but she almost missed out on this God. Thanks to her devout Muslim friend, she started searching. And she found God…looking for her.
- The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel, p. 3
- “Concerning the Jews,” The Complete Works of Mark Twain, p. 266
- “Jewish Charities Raise Huge Sums in the U.S.” April 1, 1983
- G. Tobin, “We Are One, We Are Many,” paper presented at the International Leadership Reunion of the UJA, New York, 1987, p. 21