Compelled by Pharaoh’s fear-mongering, the Egyptians impose forced labor upon the Israelites, hoping to neutralize the imagined threat. But “the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out” (Exodus 1:12). The suffering should have crushed the Israelites. Instead, it made them prosper. The same can be true for each of us, if we allow it. Of course, none of us enjoy hardship, and pain need not be welcomed as a gift. However, the wisest among us harness trauma as a catalyst for growth. The next time you experience a difficulty, ask yourself: How can I be more like the Israelites here, growing because of – and in direct proportion to – the challenge I face?
Do you own your stuff, or does your stuff own you? We would typically say that the former describes our relationship with our possessions, but when we consider the lengths we go through to get, hold on to, and maintain certain items, it becomes clear that, for many of us, the latter is at least partially true. One might wonder how the Egyptians managed to enslave an entire population of Israelites already living peacefully and prosperously in its midst. The biblical text records no act of force; there was no police roundup of Israelite communities, no military raid. Instead, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites “b’parekh” (Exodus 1:13). Literally, this translates as “oppressiveness,” but some commentators read it as a contraction of the Hebrew words for “soft speech.” The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites not through coersion but through soft speech. What kind of soft speech? “They told them, ‘Come, build cities that you may dwell in'” (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher). The Israelites were thus enslaved by their own desire for upward social mobility, their yearning for nice, new things. In every age, the same trap is set for us. We are entitled to own nice things, but we must be careful that they do not come to own us.
Two cries. Two responses. One message. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers a crying baby in a basket among the reeds on the banks of the Nile. She “took pity on him,” drew him from the water, and adopted him as her son. Later, God hears the cries of the Israelites “groaning under the bondage.” God begins the workof drawing them out of Egypt, and taking them in as a beloved. Too often, we insulate ourselves from, rationalize away, or even ignore the suffering of others. The Exodus story reminds us that redemption only happens when we enable ourselves to hear and believe those entreaties. Not only must we commit ourselves to acknowledging the cries, but we also must choose not to see them as manipulations, delusions, or expressions of weakness, but rather as authentic outbursts of pain and need.
Day 17 – The Real Revolution of the Exodus
At the Burning Bush, Moses asks for God’s name, and God responds opaquely, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” usually translated as “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be.” Such a mysterious answer begs for interpretation, however, and indeed there are hundreds ofways to understand it. Allow me to propose one more: I am that which is. I am all ofexistence. I am the ultimate reality. The Israelites were not just slaves in Egypt, they were slaves of Egypt, accepting the premises upon which Egyptian society was based: that some people are inherently more valuable than others, that worth could only be measured in wealth, that the material was of such importance the dead needed to carry it with them to the next world. Liberation from Egypt, then, required not only freedom from slavery, but also from the Egyptian mentality. And thus God’s first message to the Israelites, through Moses, the real revolution of the Exodus that still echoes today, is that there is more to reality than what can be touched and things more important than what can be bought; that, in a world where all is One in God, everyone is of equal and infinite value.
Of the ten plagues, the one that stands out as the most brutal, and perhaps the most confounding, is the last one, the Death of the Firstborn. Why did every firstborn Egyptian, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well” have to die in order for the Israelites to be set free (Exodus 12:29)? Because it was not about killing individuals; it was about dismantling an ideology. Time and again, the Torah establishes Egypt as a foil for the biblical worldview; Egypt embodies the exact opposite of Israel’s values. At the core of Egyptian values is ingrained hierarchy. Where Israel sees human dignity as equal, absolute, and infinite, Egypt sees it as contingent on birth order, family status, and wealth. Where Egypt sees one’s origin as determinative of one’s destiny, Israel sees the right and ability we each have to transcend the circumstances into which we are born. Throughout the Bible, first-born children are supplanted by more meritorious younger siblings: Isaac, Jacob, and David, to name a few. Killing the firstborn is a repudiation of Egypt’s outlook on the primacy of one’s past and an embrace of true human freedom, the potential each of us has to transcend our inherited limitations.
Day 24 – How to See God
When Pharaoh’s magicians could not replicate the third plague, lice, they exclaimed, “This is the finger ofGod!” (Exodus 8:19). Yet Pharaoh refused to accept their conclusions. Indeed, Pharaoh fails to recognize God’s role in the plagues despite repeated acts that cannot be otherwise explained. How could Pharaoh have been so obtuse back then? The answer, of course, is the same many of us are today. God is not a premise that can be proven or disproven based on the quality of the argumentation or the preponderance of the evidence. Instead, we can experience God only after we first determine to see God’s presence in the world. If we don’t first commit to seeing God at work in the world, then even the most spectacular of miracles will appear bereft of the divine. However, when we approach the world expecting to see God’s presence, then even the most mundane occurrences will radiate godly light. Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” The Exodus story and the Jewish tradition establishes Einstein’s insight as a spiritual and a moral choice each of us perpetually faces.
“When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation” (Exodus 9:23-24). A midrashic tradition holds that this hail was unique, special, miraculous: the “lightning” referenced in the passage was actually inside the hail. The hail of the 7th plague was a ball of ice with fire in the middle. Perhaps this was to remind the Egyptians that no matter how cold they were toward Israelite suffering, there remained within them a soft, caring heart waiting to be revealed in compassion for the plight of others. We too can sometimes be apathetic to others’ pain. The hail reminds us that this is not who we are at our core. And we too can lose our sense of purpose in the routines and responsibilities of our lives. The hail reminds us that, even so, our passion perpetually blazes within, waiting to be rediscovered and unleashed.
30 Days of Liberation: Day 29 – Carrying the Past With Us
Imagine the moment: God strikes down all the firstborn in Egypt. Pharaoh demands the Children of Israel leave at once. Egyptians rush to the Israelites’ settlements to give them reparations of gold and silver, a mixed multitude flocks to the Israelites to leave Egypt with them, and the Israelites themselves are scrambling to leave, not even having enough time to prepare bread for the journey. And where is Moses in this frenzied and eventful moment? On a lengthy quest to find Joseph’s bones, so he can take them with him out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19, Midrash Aggadah ad. loc.)! Moses’ actions seem perplexing to us moderns. When a future of infinite possibilities calls, why waste time and energy digging up old bones? Moreover, why weigh yourself down on the journey forward by carrying the burdens of the past? Because there is no future detached from the past, no self without a backstory. As a tree detached from the soil, we wither if we ignore where we came from, caring solely on where we are going. We cannot enter the Promised Land – or even leave Egypt – unless we carry Joseph’s bones with us.