In one of my earliest memories, I am standing among a small crowd on a sunny day, hearing people yell “Let my people go!” I was wearing an oversized blue t-shirt, or maybe it was purple, whose emblem was a Star of David surrounding a runner wrapped in chains. As I later understood, my parents had brought me to a Freedom Run for Soviet Jewry.
The words that were chanted in protest in the 1980s are echoes of language that has reverberated through our national consciousness for over three thousand years. Painfully, we are again facing a reality where these words must be invoked by all peace-loving people around the world.
Let my people go.
To appreciate the power of this message we must look back at when these words were first used. The Torah teaches us that the Jewish people, enslaved by Egypt for hundreds of years, experienced cruelty and degradation at the hands of Pharaoh and his messengers. In addition to the backbreaking labor, they saw their children kidnapped and murdered. They were demoralized and helpless. The suffering became so severe that they had no option but to yell out toward God.
It was in this context that God charged Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Of all people, Moses seemed to be an unlikely choice—forty years prior, Moses was forced to flee for his life after he defended a Jewish slave against his Egyptian oppressor. As a fugitive of the law, Moses probably assumed he would never set foot in Egypt again. God tells him to return to Egypt, stand before Pharaoh and demand, under the threat of destruction to Pharaoh’s family, the release of the Jewish people so that they may serve God.
It is hard to overstate how crazy God’s command to Moses would have seemed to a bystander. To threaten the emperor to his face and demand the release of the slaves in God’s Name—how would Moses walk out of there alive?! Moses knew how ruthless the Pharaohs could be. His own mother and sister, according to the midrash, were midwives when Pharaoh instructed them to kill in childbirth all the Jewish boys. Moses himself was born in the era when Jewish babies were grabbed from their mothers and tossed into the Nile. Despite all this terror, with courage and confidence in God’s promise, Moses, the humblest of all men, and Aaron his brother accepted God’s command.
When Moses and Aaron arrived in Egypt, the Torah tells us that they gathered all the elders together (Exodus 4:29), told them of their mission, and showed them the authenticating signs that God had given them. The people believed Moses and Aaron, and bowed down to God with hope and gratitude.
But then, in the following verse, the Torah teaches us: “And afterward, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: Thus says Hashem, Lord of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” What happened to the elders? The midrash tells us that one by one, the elders dropped back, until there were none left accompanying Moses and Aaron. The elders, once passionate, became afraid. They may have believed in Moses’s cause, but their enthusiasm and confidence withered when faced with the prospect of standing before Pharaoh. They could not overcome their fear of Pharaoh and stand with Moses.
The midrash teaches that the elders were held to account. Fifty days after witnessing God’s miracles and the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting to receive the Torah. Moses was to ascend the mountain, escorted by the elders. However, as they began their ascent, God instructed the elders to halt, telling them that they may not join Moses. God was showing them, in essence, that if you were too fearful to be bold in Pharaoh’s presence, you are not fit to stand in Mine.
As I write this, the Hamas terrorists who tortured, maimed, and murdered men women and children are still holding up to 200 people hostage. These captives are Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and foreigners representing many nations. As the Jews did when a single person was taken captive in the desert (Numbers 21:1-3), we must ask God for His help in waging this war to retrieve our imprisoned brothers and sisters. And as Moses did in Egypt, we must raise our voices with an unrelenting focus on the release of the hostages. We must continue to press the media to cover the captivity of hostages until they are all released. Americans should flood their congressperson’s office with calls expressing concern and outrage about the ongoing captivity perpetrated by Hamas. This effort cannot stop until the every single hostage is released.
For thousands of years, the Jewish people were unable to demand the return of their captives from evildoers. God has granted us the strength today, and we pray that our leaders have the courage and wisdom to guide our military to victory, including the safe release of the captives. No person of good conscience should be at ease until each one of the hostages is returned home to their family safely.
Let my people go.