Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Rabbi David Walk

            The exodus from Egypt was the greatest event in history.  Period!  It dwarfs all other contenders for this title, even Creation, the epiphany at Sinai or the Red Sox World Series victory in 2004.  I know this because when God is introduced in the Ten Commandments it is as the One who brought us out from Egypt.  Also, as Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) likes to point out, that this event is referred to in the Torah fifty times.  Furthermore, even though there are many incidents that we're supposed to remember (like Amalek, Mount Sinai and Miriam's sin), this episode is the one we must teach.  Four times the Torah explains that we are required to teach this story to our children. This is, of course, the basis for the four children in the Haggadah. There is no other mitzvah or tale which obligates us to give a detailed accounting of the occurrence.  We expend so much effort in the retelling that the Haggadah is the most commented upon book in history.  Plus, every Shabbat and Holiday is called a reminder of the exodus from Egypt. But why?  What's the point?  I guess I'll write an article to answer this burning question.
            There are obviously many ways to answer this question, after all we are Jewish.  Many commentaries, especially the great poet and philosopher Rabbi Yehudah Halevy (1075-1141), maintain that the importance of the exodus was that it established the special status of Israel, and is the proof of our unique relationship with God.  Rabbi Yehudah further asserts that this experience of an entire people to found a new nation is unique.  Other religions were based on the testimony of only one witness, or very few observers.  Others explain that the exodus together with the ten plagues and the crossing of the Yam Suf teach that God has not abandoned the world.  Avraham taught the world that there is only one Creator, but didn't demonstrate that this Inventor still cared for the invention.  Remember, the Patriarchs only knew God by the name El-Shadai, the God of nature and science (Exodus 6:3).  They didn't experience God as the four-letter ineffable Name, which represents a God who is involved and controls history.  We describe Hashgacha Klalit as God's general supervision over the rules of the cosmos (what we call science), and Hashgacha Pratit as God's fine tuning specific changes in the regulations as needed (like miracles).  This periodic divine control is what the Egyptian experience demonstrated, and this is the difference between a deist and an ethical monotheist.
            As important and meaningful as those answers are, I want to present another which was inspired by an idea in the Netivot Shalom (Reb Shalom Noach Barzofsky of Slonim, 1911-2000).  This great explicator of mystical ideas taught that every concept which makes its way into the text of the Torah has an eternal message which speaks to every generation.  So, the message of the exodus must be super relevant because it is mentioned more than any other concept in the Torah.  And what, pray tell, is that message?  That we have to be redeemed from Egypt, too.  We often make a fundamental error when we study and teach the story of the exodus.  We describe Egypt as a geographic entity and an historical regime.  It's not.  It's an idea, a metaphor, a paradigm for something basic to our personal experience.  The Hebrew name, Mitzrayim (Mitzer in Arabic), makes this idea easier to fathom.  Mitzrayim means the narrow place, sort of like a trap or prison.
            Everyone must discover the reality which binds or constricts us.  We all have our own personal Egypt which we are required to emerge from.  When we say in the Haggadah that everyone must see themselves as if they personally escaped from Egypt, we mean it, literally.  The problem isn't how can I project myself backwards to the Land of the Pharaohs.  The problem is to figure out what feature of our modern world replaces Egypt as an oppressive factor in our lives.  Some authorities say that life itself is a constricting force oppressing my soul which feels alien to this physical realm.  Perhaps.  However, I'm not so impressed with that approach.  I don't believe that this world is bad, just challenging.  Instead, I'm more comfortable with the opinion of Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, who says that everyone has their own individual Egypt based upon the difficulties that they face in their lives.  We all must discover our challenge, and confront it.  Rabbi Twerski emphasizes psychological issues, but everyone is required to figure out the central challenge that they must cope with.
            There is a major distinction between the two mitzvoth associated with this obligation of connecting with the exodus experience.  There is the full time mitzvah of zecher yetzi'at mitzrayim or remembering the exodus.  We discharge this precept by merely stating that God brought us out from Egypt at the end of our twice daily recitation of Shma. There is, as well, the annual requirement of sipur yetzi'at mitzrayim or retelling the event so vividly that we actually are reliving the occurrence.  This mitzvah is, of course fulfilled through our intensive Seder experience.  So, we are always supposed to be conscious of our own oppressing Egypt-like issue, but only once a year are we expected to overcome it and emerge from its grasp.
            All of this could be very daunting and even depressing, if it weren't for one crucial mitigating factor.  Pesach and the Seder experience really work.  This special night and unique happening every year can result in a miraculous rebirth.  That's why it's called a special night set aside for that purpose (leil shimorim, Exodus 12:42).  And now we can understand why our Sages tell us that we begin that critical evening in a state of decrepitude and finish it in a praise-worthy status.  The Seder allows us to emerge from our constricting chrysalis as a soaring, gorgeous butterfly.              

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