By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Sermon For Shabbat “Bo” 5777
The Exodus is one of the most breathtaking stories in the entire Torah. Visually spectacular, it is also intensely dramatic, so much so that it has been turned into opera, several Hollywood movies, and at least one musical.
But aside from that, this story really has many important lessons for us even today, more than 3000 years after the events it recounts took place.
Here are some of the lessons I got from it.
First, I learned how easy it is for people to forget—or at least not to learn from—their own history. “A new Pharaoh arose,” the Torah says; one that “knew not Joseph;” who forgot how Joseph had, not too long ago, saved all Egypt from a devastating famine; how, instead, he helped Egypt turn into a world power; and how, along the way, he enriched Pharaoh’s own, private coffers. Forgetting all these contributions, Pharaoh in return, turns the Jews into slaves, persecutes them and ultimately even resorts to genocide. Pharaoh commands that all male Jewish babies be thrown into the Nile River.
Secondly, I learned about heroism. Despite the harsh decrees and cruel oppression, the Jewish People refused to give up. Encouraged by teachers and visionaries like Moses, Aaron and Miriam, the Jews struggled under their burden, yet heroically they held on to their faith, never losing hope that God would eventually redeem them and lead them back to their own land, the Promised Land.
We often think of heroes as men, but in the Exodus story women take their rightful place among the saviors of our people. There were the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who proudly resisted Pharaoh and refused to obey his orders, which they saw as unjust, cruel and inhumane. Then there were also the ones who acted in secret, such as Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who took pity on her child and refused to hand him over to the assassins. There was Miriam, who watched as her baby brother was put in a tiny basket and allowed to drift among the reeds that lined the shores of the Nile River. And there was, of course, the Daughter of Pharaoh, who openly flouted her father’s orders, rescued the baby from the water, and raised him as her own.
Reading between the lines, I understood that there must have been an Underground Railroad, a secret, hidden passageway meant to save Jewish babies; and that Miriam, her mother Yocheved, and even Pharaoh’s daughter were probably part of this secret, sacred alliance
The Ten Plagues—whether you read them literally or as symbolic metaphors—were the means by which God intervened in history, with the result that a new nation was created, one that still lives to this day, the Jewish People.
The Plagues were terrifying then—and are still so today. I remember from my childhood days in Israel when a huge, black cloud of locust descended on the land. They covered up the sky almost completely, causing a huge amount of agricultural damage, before the wind—and us kids going out in the fields, banging pots and other noisy implements—finally drove them out.
When the animated feature “The Prince of Egypt” came out nearly two decades ago, I remember seeing it in the theater. As the tenth and final plague, The Death of the Firstborn, was about to be unleashed, in the tense and ominous moments that made you hold your breath in fear and anticipation, suddenly a young child’s voice rose from a few rows behind where I was sitting. “Can we go home now??” the child cried out.
I learned that when God does intervene in history, to rescue the afflicted and uplift the oppressed, God does so with the most terrifying power, power that blows away like so much chaff the most haughty and proud of tyrants.
But if cruelty leads to downfall and destruction, it is compassion that leads to redemption.
Pharaoh’s ultimate defeat was not only due to his tyrannical rule. It wasn’t only that his glory and the glory of his entire civilization were founded on the backs of suffering slaves. It was his lack of pity and compassion. When the Hebrew slaves complained, he increased their burden; when they continued to flourish and increase despite all his harsh decrees, he ordered them killed. Pharaoh watched as children were thrown into the Nile; he didn’t flinch as they flailed in the water; he didn’t blink an eye as their desperate cries grew silent, one by one.
The compassion of the Hebrew midwives infuriated Pharaoh. He was powerless before them. But his ultimate downfall was ensured by his own daughter, who refused to obey his orders, obeying her own heart instead, when she did show compassion, taking pity on one small child and rescuing him from the water. This child grew to be the man who gave us the Ten Commandments and led us to the Promised Land, Moses.
One of the most important lessons of the Exodus story is not to forget. Pharaoh had forgotten Joseph; what we must do now is to remember. It’s important to remember the good times, yes. But we must also remember our past and what we had to endure to remain Jews. Not only because it’s part of our history, but also because it reminds us of our moral obligations. The Torah commands us, “Thou shalt neither trouble a stranger nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Jews have always interpreted this commandment as having compassion for the homeless, for the dispossessed, for refugees and newly arrived immigrants; for those whose rights are all too often infringed upon; who are too often taken advantage of; and who daily face ridicule and disparagement—just as we did, in ancient Egypt and throughout our history.
The memory of slavery and suffering are etched in our minds and souls. And so we become socially and politically active whenever we see taken away the rights of other people, people of different skin color or religion, of a different gender or gender identification, immigrants, refugees, the marginalized of our society.
The key to our existence is memory, and over the many centuries and millennia that have passed since the Exodus, we have not forgotten. Every year, at our Passover seders, we remind ourselves. We repeat the story, one generation retelling it to the next, obeying the commandment we find in this week’s portion, והגדת לבנך, “And you shall speak these words to your children.”
Who knows, perhaps it is for this reason and purpose that we were redeemed by the Almighty, so that we could pick up where God left off, and bring freedom, joy and light to every corner of God’s world.
May we find the faith, the courage and strength to make this broken world whole again, to make it a better place for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the downtrodden, so that we too, along with our children—or perhaps our children’s children—might one day enter the Promised Land just as the ancient Israelites did thousands of years ago.
Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.