The study of the Torah usually involves developing an understanding of the text and how the various incidents and laws have been interpreted by generations of Torah scholars, usually beginning with the commentaries of Rashi, Rambam, Ramban and Ibn Ezra. This week’s reading, Parsha Bo, provides a unique opportunity to understand the entirety of the Torah and its affect and effect, on parochial, Universalist and secular societies. Yitzeath Mitzrayim, the Exodus, has become the most storied event in Jewish history and is one of the most formative occurrences impacting on western Civilization It has been adopted by a variety of national liberation movements in the past and until today.
Yitzeath Mitzrayim is the dominant event that drives Jewish belief and identity -its yearly retelling keeps it central in our core ideology, as does its regular mention in the liturgy. Redemption and freedom are two of the ideas that have challenged generations of Jews, from at least the end of the Second Jewish Commonwealth (the Second Temple period) – coupled with a firm belief that the same God who took Israel out of the slavery of Egypt, would eventually redeem their descendants that too had come to be oppressed. The Haggadah shel Pesach has, with its broad themes of physical and spiritual redemption, has given successive generations an opportunity to connect the past to their present. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote that the Exodus from Egypt is “the core event of Jewish history and religion. When Jews relive the Exodus movement from slavery to freedom, they are linked with their specific past and also experience that promised universal future. They experience the perils of the deepest of human oppression, slavery. They are both frustrated and nourished by what is now only a ‘taste of perfection.’”
Israel’s experience in Egypt and their grand journey to freedom, the movement of ja people, have been co-opted by many; including civil rights and feminists’ movements, and the struggles to end Apartheid and colonial rule in India. The most familiar adoption though is by Africans who had been taken from the lands of their birth to become slaves in strange lands. The symbolism derived from the sufferings of the Israelites was embraced by slaves, and then by freemen whose plight unfortunately was not any better, to articulate their sense of historical identity as a people – an identification which resonates in their liturgy, folk songs and in some of the native spiritual movements.
In Exodus and Revolution, Professor Michael Walzer demonstrated the extent to which the story of the Israelites redemption from Egypt functioned as an archetype for political revolutions throughout history and in particular, the American Revolution. He explained that Franklin and Jefferson read the Torah as a political text, a paradigm for resistance against tyrannical rulers. In colonial America, everyone with the rudiments of schooling knew one book thoroughly: the Torah.
The generation of America’s Founding Fathers saw themselves as experiencing afresh, under God, the tribulations and the successes of the Hebrew people. “For answers to their problems,” said Daniel Boorstin, “they drew as readily on Exodus, Kings, or Romans, as on the less narrative portions of the Bible. Their peculiar circumstances and their flair for the dramatic led them to see special significance in these narrative passages. The basic reality in their life was the analogy with the Children of Israel. They conceived that by going out into the Wilderness, they were reliving the story of Exodus and not merely obeying an explicit command to go into the wilderness. For them the Bible was less a body of legislation than a set of binding precedents.” In Bruce Feiler’s “America’s Prophet, How the Story of Moses Shaped America” the author comes to a similar conclusion. One may argue that America was actually the first modern Jewish State.
The story of Yitzeath Mitzrayim is subject to an ever-changing constellation of interpretations – yet the recounting of Israel’s delivery from Egypt, no matter how it’s adapted for contemporary use, has remained through the centuries a fundamental Jewish ritual and an expression of its basic values. The fact that Western civilization has adopted that message only reinforces its currency.