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Three central lessons from the Passover story.
Pop quiz: What was the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt?
If you answered, “To free the Israelites from slavery,” or “to save them from oppression and suffering,” you probably would be in the company of 99% of those answering this question. However, one very important dissenting voice would give a very different answer, and that’s the voice of God Himself.
God’s purpose was to create a relationship with the Jewish people.
In the Shema God says: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt to be for you a God.” God’s avowed purpose was to create a relationship with the Jewish people. “You will be My people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:7).
To create that relationship, God had to first of all reveal Himself. That was the purpose of the ten plagues – “So you will know that I am God” (Ex. 8:18). Each plague revealed some facet of God’s mastery. For example, the plague of lice, which was the first plague that the Egypt sorcerers could not duplicate, showed that God had mastery over even the tiniest creations. The plague of hail, which included, “fire flaming amid the hail” (Ex. 9:24) showed that whereas the pagan pantheon had a different god for each natural force, the one God of the Hebrews controlled all, even competing forces.
The relationship that God was establishing with the Israelites was a relationship of love. Therefore, He had to show them that He saw and cared about their affliction. The Israelites had to feel taken care of by God. Relief from their suffering, freedom from their slavery, was not the goal of the Exodus, but was necessary for the purpose of establishing a relationship, the true goal of the Exodus.
Most of us identify the slavery and liberation of the black slaves in the South with the slavery and liberation of the ancient Israelites. Indeed, the black slaves themselves appropriated the Biblical story in their songs and their prayers. The difference is that when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the black slaves, his purpose was to free them from slavery, not to forge a relationship with them.
In Judaism, however, the greatest good is not relief from suffering, but rather connection and relationship (which often involve some degree of suffering). God’s purpose in creating the world was in order to have a relationship with human beings. And since there are only two states of being, a state of connection or a state of estrangement, being connected to God means being connected to your spouse, your parents, your children, your friends, and your neighbors. That, according to Judaism, is the purpose of life and also the purpose of the Exodus.
From God’s first revelation to Moses at the burning bush, He made clear that the Redemption entailed not just emerging from slavery to freedom, but an actual geographical relocation from Egypt to the land of Israel. When the Israelites were poised on the border of the land of Israel, God said: “For the land to which you are coming to possess it, it is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you would plant your seed and water it by your foot, like a green garden. But the land to which you cross over to possess it is a land of hills and valleys; from the rain of heaven it will drink water” (Deut. 11:10-11).
The Nile River watered Egypt and sustained its agriculture. Elaborate irrigation systems operated by foot used this reliable water source to feed the population. The land of Israel, on the other hand, depends on rain. And as the most avid viewer of the Weather Channel knows, rain is unpredictable. Exactly when it will fall, where it will fall, how much will fall, and whether it will fall in a gentle rain easily absorbed by the earth or a torrent that will flood and wreck havoc—all these are unpredictable.
Nile-like predictability confers an illusion of control. But the truth is that life is unpredictable. From heart attacks and strokes to stock market declines to auto accidents, no one really knows what will happen tomorrow. Admitting uncertainty leads us to acknowledge our total dependence on God, which is true spiritual liberation.
Ancient Egypt was a super-power. Its totalitarian government had absolute control over the life and death of its residents. Our sages tell us that no slave ever escaped Egypt. The Israelites lived in Egypt for 210 years. The slavery extended for 86 years. It started with genocide, throwing all the baby boys into the Nile, and continued with over eight decades of sadistic torture and oppression. By the time God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, that generation of Israelites had lived their entire lives under the whip.
Their only hope was that political change—a new regime—would lighten their burden. But when the reigning Pharaoh died and his successor was just as harsh a tyrant, the Israelites finally realized that their only hope was God, and “they cried out” to God in despair.
If you believe in God, no situation, no diagnosis, no military threat is beyond God’s control.
Immediately God responded by appearing to Moses and promising the redemption. But when Moses returned to Egypt with the tidings of redemption, he found broken, hopeless people. Our sages tell us that they were on the lowest level of spiritual impurity.
Then God performed miracles and wonders, and just ten months later, they were free. The super-power Egypt reduced to rubble, the Israelites walked out carrying the riches of Egypt like payment for their servitude.
God, the Author of nature, is not restricted by nature. If you believe in the authority of nature, you are bound by cause and effect, but if you believe in God, no situation, no diagnosis, no military threat is beyond God’s control. There is no room for hopelessness and despair in a God-run world. As our sages said, “Salvation can come in the blink of an eye.”
Their proof is the Exodus from Egypt.