In a great tragedy of history, the success of far too many revolutions against tyranny have turned into disasters, with the revolutionaries acting as cruelly and high-handedly in power as the despots whom they overthrew. Consider the French “reign of terror” that followed the 1789 revolution, and the policy of systematic oppression by Stalin in the decades following 1917’s Bolshevik revolution, to cite but two examples that have unfortunate parallels in more recent times.
With that context, we would have expected to read of vengeful behavior by the freed Israelites toward an Egyptian oppressor that had de-humanized and enslaved them for generations. They certainly had plenty of scores to settle. Yet the rebellion by the Israelite slaves does not take this parochial – if understandable – detour.
Rather, the Divinely-orchestrated Israelite revolution actually has an unambiguous, universal message that repudiates the Egyptian worldview: Every human being is a child of God, born with the inalienable right of freedom.
This forward-looking guiding principle for humanity reverberates to the present day. Sadly, since oppression and rebellion persist in this world, we see that the lesson has not yet taken root everywhere, so it is imperative that we learn from the Exodus, the quintessential moral revolution against human oppression of fellow humans.
The series of events that enabled the Israelites to finally flee from Egypt were, of course, the Ten Plagues. The order and content of the plagues are not coincidental; embedded in its structure is the key lesson about the Exodus for all future generations. Appropriately enough, it is the Passover Haggadah that unlocks this message, where Rabbi Judah breaks down these plagues into three categories, consisting of three, three and four plagues, respectively.
Based on this teaching, Rabbi Judah Loew (16th Century Prague, better known as “Maharal”) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th Century Germany) offer a deep insight into the plagues, citing the prophecy from the “Covenant Between the Pieces”, in which God informs Abraham that “your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved; and they shall be afflicted” [Gen. 15:13], after which they will inherit the Promised Land of Israel.
This prophecy delineates the three characteristics perpetrated by every persecutor toward its victim: alienation, enslavement, and affliction. The Israelites in Egypt were first de-legitimized as aliens or strangers in a foreign country to which they did not belong [Ex. 1:9-10]; were enslaved and forced to build the storehouses of Pitom and Ramses [ibid., v. 11-14]; and were mercilessly afflicted through the mass murder of their male babies and back-breaking labor under inhumane working conditions [ibid., v. 15-22].
Maharal and Rabbi Hirsch ingeniously suggest that God punished the Egyptians measure for measure by means of the plagues.
The first plague in each of the three categories – blood (#1 of 10), wild animals (#4) and hail (#7) – would make the Egyptians feel like aliens in an Egypt taken over by some strange force totally foreign to their experience until this point: the familiar life-giving Nile turned to blood, wild animals running rampant and seemingly controlling human movement, and hail uncharacteristically raining – and reigning – down on a defenseless Egyptian populace.
The second plague in each of the categories – frogs (#2), animal illnesses (#5) and locusts (#8) – would make the Egyptians feel enslaved, devoid of ownership of any property, which is the chief characteristic of a slave. Frogs took over their homes, animal illnesses destroyed their livestock, and locusts completely consumed their agricultural crop.
And the third plague of each of the categories – vermin (#3), boils (#6) and darkness (#9) – afflicted every Egyptian with severe personal discomfort, making it impossible to continue living, working and socializing in any humanly endurable fashion. The Egyptians became subjected to the very alienation, enslavement and affliction to which they had subjected the Israelites!
The most important point of all this, however, is that it is not the Israelites who return the favor to the Egyptians; rather, it is the Almighty Who teaches the world the lesson of the necessity of universal freedom under the God of all humanity.
Thus, the Israelites have no right to feel like invincible conquerors after their successful Exodus; if anything, they can only feel beholden to the God of their redemption, before Whom every human is creature and not creator, servant and not master. The creator-hood and parenthood of God ultimately make possible the creature-hood and sibling-hood of humanity, and in such a world, no human has the right to enslave another human.
God freed us from Pharaoh’s enslavement in order that we be able to serve God, the only and ultimate Redeemer. Therefore, God teaches us and the world that we must “love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [Deut. 10:19], and gave us the Sabbath (“a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt”) a day on which our gentile servants, too, “may rest like you” – for everyone must be free under God. This is the ultimate message and legacy of the great Israelite revolution in Egypt.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.