Not What Happened But What Should Happen Now
Why do we even celebrate days of commemoration? A careful look at the Torah demonstrates that our goal is not to return to the past but rather to bring the past to us. These are not archaeological holidays but sociological and ethical holidays. The question we deal with during these holidays is not what exactly happened back then, for the tools we have to analyze such a question are exceedingly limited. Rather, it is the opposite: What do we have to conclude with regard to our own lives today in light of what the Torah tells us happened then?
Here we find a panoply of answers in the Torah itself.
The Theological Consequences of the Exodus Account
One kind of answer relates to theological belief that God is active in the world and directs it. A person may believe in miracles as described in the Torah; another person may offer naturalistic interpretation of what may have appeared like miracles to others, or may approach the text from a totally different perspective. The main point though—the backbone of faith—is to believe what it says at the beginning of the Decalogue, that God is not only the creator of the world but active in the world, working behind the scenes. The mitzvot which express this fundamental believe include the holidays, the redemption of the first-born, tefillin, and others.
The Social and Ethical Consequences of the Exodus Account
At the same time, the Torah contains an entire class of mitzvot based on the exodus from Egypt that are connected to social and ethical aspects of life. The Torah teaches that people who were once slaves, and could only dream of a vacation day when they could stop working, cannot but grant rest to their own workers and slaves, and therefore, they must observe Shabbat in their households. In Exod 22:20, for example, we read:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
An obligation exists to avoid mistreating the stranger among us, for we lived through the experience of being strangers and mistreated, and it is forbidden for us to do the same to others.
The Torah’s treatment of the slavery extends into the law in Deuteronomy 15:14 requiring a master to grant severance pay to the Hebrew slaves that went free after their six years of servitude:
“Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat with which the Lord your God blessed you.”
The Torah continues with an explanation for the commandment, in which we again find the memory of the exodus from Egypt playing a pivotal role in explaining to the reader the basis for the requirement to treat slaves ethically and fairly (15:15):
“Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.”
The memory of the slavery in Egypt plays a role in Leviticus 25:41-42 as well, at the climax of the law about the jubilee year, enjoining all Israelite masters to free their Hebrew slaves and allow them to take possession of their ancestral holdings once again:
“Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding. — For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.”
Conclusion – The Meaning of the Exodus Account for Us
What is significant, therefore, is not determining the correct meaning of “miracle” and how various historical incidents may have occurred, but the obligation for each of us to see ourselves as if we had left Egypt and to derive the proper conclusions. As a consequence, we will turn our hearts in the right direction, both towards a firmer belief in God’s role in history as well as by using the stories as motivation to live our lives with a sense of ethics and social responsibility, in line with the values of the Torah.
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March 26, 2015
November 12, 2020
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikva. He is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rabbi Cherlow served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi and was one of the founders of the Tzohar Foundation. Among his books are a commentary on the Song of Songs and a book on prophecy.
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