Egypt, Again

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

How the country’s turmoil resonates with a striking biblical parallel.

The front-page stories in newspapers around the world today resonate with striking biblical parallel.

The land of the pharaohs is suddenly aflame with a movement of millions crying out for freedom from the oppression of a tyrannical regime. The same Egypt that millennia ago witnessed the rebellion of the Jews against their servitude seems to be replaying the story of the book of Exodus. Freedom is the mantra of the dissidents who want to bring to an end the despotic rule of Mubarak – just as it was the driving force behind the mission of Moses who wanted to bring about a better world for his people.

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Of course the reality is that contemporary events are strikingly different from the Torah story. Today’s revolution doesn’t have the same divine source as the one in the Bible. The leadership of the rebels isn’t as uniquely motivated by spiritual values as Moses and Aaron. For all we know, the overthrow of the present regime may very well prove to bring into power a worse devil, undoing Israel’s peace with Egypt for the past three decades – a peace, no matter how cold it may have been, that nonetheless ensured a measure of stability and the absence of military conflict. There’s a very real danger that today’s movement for change, in spite of its strong democratic slogans, will simply pave the way for turning Egypt into another extremist Islamic Iran.

But there is one very crucial connection between the story of old and contemporary events. It is rooted in the reason that we Jews have been obsessed with the story of the Exodus from Egypt for thousands of years. And now that the media and the world share our obsession with the land of the Nile and the pyramids, it is very important for us to identify exactly what it was about that experience that made it the seminal moment of Jewish history.

After all, the Jewish exodus from Egypt became immortalized even far more than by serving as source for the holiday of Passover. The Haggadah quotes the Talmud which teaches us that there is a mitzvah to remember the story of our departure twice every single day, morning and night. It is featured as a highlight memory of every Friday night Kiddush. And most strikingly of all, Egypt and the Exodus made it into the very first of the 10 Commandments:

“I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

Those are the stirring opening words of the Decalogue. They link God’s claim to our belief and our allegiance not to any philosophical arguments or theological proofs; we are simply commanded to obey all the laws given at Sinai because we were witness to what happened in Egypt.

And the biblical commentators were perplexed by an obvious question: Wouldn’t it mean much more if God were to identify Himself first and foremost with the words I am the Lord your God who created the heavens and the earth? The fact that God liberated us from slavery was a wonderful achievement, but even human beings have been great emancipators. However only God Himself can lay claim to the role of creator. Why did the first commandment choose a seemingly lesser demonstration of divine power, the Exodus over creation, as the ultimate source deserving of bringing about mankind’s acceptance of monotheism?

The powerful answer of many commentators is that the God whom we met at Sinai wanted above all to refute the heresy that denied not His existence, but His ongoing concern. Were God simply to identify himself as the One Who created the heavens and the earth, we could believe there is a divine origin to the universe but no ongoing connection that would make the Almighty relevant to our lives.

The story of our deliverance from Egypt proved that history is not happenstance, that events are not meaningless.
When He told us I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, God wanted to impress upon us the idea, as Yehudah Halevi put it, that He is a God of history who maintains a personal relationship with every one of us created in His image.

And because God is a personal God who continues to care about us, about the fate of the Jewish people and the ultimate future of mankind, history becomes meaningful. It is orchestrated from Above. It has a pre-ordained destiny.

The story of our deliverance from Egypt is so very crucial because it proved to us for the first time and for all time that history is not happenstance, that events are not meaningless, that hidden beneath the often inexplicable moments that alter human destiny and the fate of empires and nations is the finger of God writing the script of the story of mankind.

The Talmud teaches us that there are two possible ways to view the events that befall us. The first is the philosophy of “there is no justice and there is no judge.” It is a heresy that adopts words like coincidence, chance or luck to explain the strange twists and turns of life, denying any link between the Creator and His creations.

The antithesis of this heresy is that history has meaning and purpose. It is not haphazard. It has a plan. It follows a divinely ordained order, decreed by God who continues to be involved in every aspect of the story of mankind.

And the word for “order” in Hebrew? It is “Seder.”

That’s why the most important ritual of Passover, commemorating the Exodus, is called Seder. Not because it emphasizes that there is an order, a Seder, to the meal, but because it summarizes the key message of our original Egypt experience.

Things happen for a reason. History follows a divinely decreed order. God didn’t stop caring about the world after He created it. He is still deeply involved and He has a master plan for the end of days.

That’s why Jews, in spite of all we’ve endured, remain optimistic about the future. The Egyptian experience taught us the message of the first commandment: God is a God of history who will never abandon His people or His plan for universal messianic fulfillment.

At this juncture no one can really say with certainty what will happen in Egypt today, and how much more so tomorrow. But even in the midst of all the turmoil and confusion we Jews can remind the world of the lesson Egypt was always meant to convey to us, going all the way back to Sinai: The dramatic changes of history have a divinely understood purpose. Their order, while often incomprehensible as they unfold, represent the way God chooses to bring about his ultimate design for mankind’s salvation.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the contemporary story of rebellion and revolution in Egypt will be the stepping stones to another holiday like Passover that will commemorate the final redemption.

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