INSIGHT

5769 - #14

THE RELEVANCE OF YETZIAT MITRAYIM

            

            References to Egypt fill the Torah, the Tanach, in fact, all works of Jewish thought. Its significance is vital to our very identity. It would seem, though, that there are actually two ways in which we are to remember and consider Egypt in our present lives as Jews; two ways that Egypt is to be incorporated into our very national being. One is through remembering that we – our nation, our forefathers – were once slaves in that land. With that recognition, we are to develop empathy. We are to identify with the downtrodden as we should know what it is like to be afflicted. The result is not only that, thereby, we should learn to act with compassion to others who find themselves in similar situations but that, thereby, we should inherently intertwine compassion into our very being. The constant reference to our slavery in Egypt, thus, has great relevance to us, even today, thousands of years later, for it instructs us in how to behave, in how to feel, towards others, especially those less fortunate. Of course, the entire corpus of Jewish history contains, sadly, lessons of this nature whereby we are to learn how to relate to those less fortunate because we also experienced such circumstances. Egypt, though, set the tone for the entire nation as a nation. We, the total nation, together, experienced such affliction and so, we, together, as a nation, must integrate into our very collective essence this empathy. We were slaves in Egypt. Not solely as individuals but as a nation, we must emanate collective empathy.

            There is, though, another aspect of our Egyptian experience upon which we are to focus. This is not the actual experience in Egypt but, rather, the experience of our redemption from Egypt. We are to remember the Exodus. Many siddurim, in fact, contain a list of six remembrances, of six Torah verses, which Kabbalistic sources direct us to say every day, instructing us to remember certain specific items. The first such verse presented, Devarim 16:3, instructs us to remember the Exodus from Egypt. Chinuch, Mitzvah 21, in explaining the mitzvah of sippur Yetziat Mitrayim, recounting the Exodus story, specifically on the first night of Pesach, extends the theme that he has developed to explain all the various commandments of this night, including the korban Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice: to remember the astonishing miracles of the event. It is with the acknowledgement of these great miracles that one can truly recognize God as all-powerful with total free dominion over the universe. Yetziat Mitzrayim does not just stand for God the Creator Who created the universe ex nihilo but God the Sustainer Who maintains and governs our existence moment to moment. This is the great teaching of Yetziat Mitrayim.

            Yet, in directing us to constantly remember the Exodus, the directive would seem to go beyond the value of a lesson, albeit a most significant and important lesson, into the realm of our very being. Philosophical appreciation of God is still a cognitive process, and while this cognitive process has great value,1 the thought that we are to constantly remember the Exodus seems to go beyond the cognitive. Similar to how our experience in Egypt should affect our very being, the question also emerges: how is remembering Yetziat Mitrayim to affect our being

            Of course, belief in the full nature of God affects us, but an idea remains outside of our being. The demand is to understand how remembering this event permeates our being. Remembering the slavery in Egypt causes us to feel, whenever we encounter those suffering misfortune to feel their pain and strive to help. The question is: what is a similar effect that we can expect from constantly remembering the Exodus? Rashi, Shemot 20:2, in explaining the reference to the Exodus, in the opening verse of the Asseret Hadibrot, colloquially translated as the Ten Commandments, states that thereby we also recognize our gratitude and obligation to God. In our being, we recognize that we are, thereby, bound to serve God. In the same vein, in recognizing God’s kindness to us in freeing us from Egypt, our being is also filled with a recognition of our bond to God on another level, that of love. Remembering Yetziat Mitrayim permeates our being through establishing within our very beings our relationship with God.

            Rashi, however, presents another reason for the significance of Yetziat Mitzrayim. On the surface, the presentation of God through Yetziat Mitrayim would seem to be contradictory. Simultaneously, while presenting Himself as a Being of great Mercy, He also presented Himself as a mighty warrior – yet He is still One. The significance of Rashi’s statement can not be ignored. While Yetziat Mitrayim freed the Jewish People, it also brought devastation to Egypt. How can we refer to God as inherently kind and caring when He brought terrible plagues unto the Egyptians? How can we learn to be empathetic from the experience of our slavery in Egypt when the lesson from our Exodus would seem to not reflect this general empathy?

            God did not just take us out of Egypt to be free – free as understood within the colloquial of our modern world. Freedom is often understood as a right to do anything – except, maybe, to hurt another. Not just from the fact that the Exodus led to Kabbalat HaTorah, our acceptance of our Torah responsibilities, but from the very event of Yetziat Mitzrayim itself, we are to incorporate the true meaning of being free. We are to be responsible – and responsibility entails making decisions through our mind that directs that which our beings feel. From our slavery in Egypt, we are incorporate into our very being the emotion of empathy, of care for others and a desire to help. From Yetziat Mitrayim, though, we are to learn that empathy alone still cannot direct us how to behave. We are to have a certain emotional structure built upon caring. But this emotional structure alone cannot determine our behaviour. Behaviour must be determined based upon our mind’s assessment of what really is correct and necessary given our empathetic being. God, whose essence is rachamim and chesed, still could be perceived to be a warrior – one, perhaps, without empathetic feelings – when that is what was necessary. This is the great lesson and relevance of Yetziat Mitrayim to us today. To be a thoughtful person, to truly do what is correct and necessary, often can lead to misunderstandings of who you are – either contradictory or totally with ignorance of a full appreciation of your being. Nevertheless, albeit it that it challenged the simple ability to perceive God’s Oneness, He acted as He did. He acted correctly towards Egypt even though He had to control His Essential Beingness of empathy.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 This would seem to be true even when instructed to meet this cognitive objective, i.e. at the Seder when our study of Yetziat Mitrayim is to fill the night. But it is a different existential objective that is the goal: to personally experience the Exodus. How the cognitive process of study combined with the specific actions of the night are to yield this objective is a matter for further study but outside the parameters of the Insight.

(c) Nishma, 2009


 


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2006 NISHMA