This has been a week of history-making events. A serving prime minister has officially been indicted for corruption. President Trump’s deal of the century for peace is presented. We have just marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, today is the exodus of England from the EU and in our Torah reading we mark the beginning of the nation of Israel with their exodus from Egypt. No longer a ragtag bunch of slaves, but a people with a God, a code of laws, a history, a purpose, a land-to-be-inherited, and traditions that begin to amass. Altogether, an auspicious week.
Only time will tell what happens in the political sphere. Will the plan that no one realistically expects to be implemented usher in peace or more bloodshed? Take your choice. 75 years from Auschwitz is enough time for people to have forgotten what happened and for new cadres of hate mongers to prepare for the next round. The only aspect of the week that has withstood the test of time is our coalescence into a nation.
The Jewish education and socialization process that begins in our parsha has two main purposes. One is separation. We are to go our own way. In Egypt it starts with the calendar. We are told that the month of Pesach is the first month of the year, and we learn that the months are determined by the moon. This already distinguishes us from the Egyptians who, according to Professor Google, had a solar calendar.
Other elements will differentiate us from the masses of nations, such as dietary laws, Shabbat and shmitta, all of which are intended to make mingling with other nations more difficult, if we adhere to our laws.
Then there is the second purpose: to remember. We are to remember what happened and transmit these memories to our children. We are to engage the youngsters and make sure they know where we and they come from and what makes us special.
The laws pertaining to memory include tefillin, which are mentioned twice at the end of the parsha. They include telling the children what happened, mentioned four times. Later they will include the mezuzah and tzitzit. As becomes evident very soon in our story, we as a people have a very short memory regarding God’s commandments to us and our obligations to Him.
Sometimes we are so successful in keeping our memories alive that the past seems to live within us. When our niece was about 10 years old (many years ago) she burst into tears when she learned that David, king of Israel who lives and frolics in our song about him – actually died thousands of years ago. “It can’t be!” she wailed.
This process begins in our parsha. Beneath the veneer of preparations for a one-time event – the exodus – the overarching purpose of indoctrination rules supreme. Like new recruits being whipped into shape by a drill sergeant, our ancestors in Egypt were pushed and pulled and wiggled and waggled into shape as a people with a divine leader who had very specific ideas in mind.
You take the lamb on the tenth of the month. This simple command showed that their actions were being guided by someone other than the Egyptians. They were to slaughter the animal, eat it with their family or neighbors, as many as it took to eat the whole animal, and in this way to tie their fortunes with others in the community.
As the Israelites left Egypt, rushed out by Pharaoh and the Egyptians at large all of whom had suffered deaths in their homes, how many of them had butterflies in their stomachs? How many of them do you think backed out and despite all the plagues, decided not to leave Egypt? We don’t know, although in next week’s parsha the rabbis read in a hint that only about a fifth of the people left. Or a fifth of the people remained.
While the Israelites knew what they were fleeing FROM, did they know what they were fleeing TO? They were probably happy to leave the land of oppression but some of them must have been nervous about leaving what was known and relatively safe. They knew that their redeemer was indeed a mighty God and that they should be in good hands. But then – you don’t really know what kind of a relationship you’re getting into until you’re already in it and then it’s too late.
Our parsha ends with the people carrying flatbread – matza – on their backs and receiving instructions about redeeming firstborn animals and male children from God. And to eat matzot. And to don tefillin.
In other words, the people were getting a taste of some of the things in store for them in the desert. The parsha ends with the message that Moshe wants them to remember, no matter what: “Because God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”
Today’s parsha describes one third of the most fundamental stories in our history – the exodus. Next week we read about crossing the Reed Sea and then Mount Sinai. Three parshot that contain the most important events after the founding ancestors.
Welcome to the ongoing saga of the wandering Jews.