RELEVANCE OF YETZIAT MITRAYIM
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.
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
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.
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?
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