The novelist Paul Auster once wrote that “stories happen only to those who are able to tell them.” It is an insight that can be extended to storytelling nations as well. The events of the Exodus take place so that there will be a story to tell, and the Jewish people’s retelling of the story throughout the generations – each formulating its identity by reading its own experiences in light of the foundational narrative – spins ever more secondary tales. “In every generation a person must regard himself as though he personally had gone out of Egypt,” the Mishna (Pesaĥim 10:5) says. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, once said that the relation between the Jewish people and the Exodus was not a nation that has a story but a story that has a nation.
One example of inspiration drawn from the Exodus is the protests calling for the release of Soviet Jewry, which were always accompanied by cries of “Let my people go!” Another is the civil rights struggle in the US, led by Martin Luther King, in which the Exodus was a major theme. But the story left its mark on individuals as well as movements: the story of my family also came to pass thanks to the Exodus.
My wife’s grandfather, Israel Prize laureate Professor Akiva Ernst Simon, a descendant of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, was born in Germany to an assimilated Jewish family. Until the age of seven he did not even know he was Jewish; and growing up, he was just like any other German boy, his Jewishness only a minor component of his identity. When World War I broke out, he joined the German army, where he first encountered brutal and cruel anti-Semitism. The encounter with his comrades was the first sign that his place in German society was destined to change. One evening, Simon learned that the Jewish soldiers were holding a Passover Seder, a ritual that was utterly foreign to him, and decided to join them. Toward the end, several participants got up and exclaimed enthusiastically, “Next year in Jerusalem!” When Simon asked the young man seated next to him why they were standing, he was told, “Those people are Zionists. They want to emphasize that the Jewish people should return to the Land of Israel.”
“At that moment, my life changed,” Simon would relate when recalling the story over the years. “I, too, rose to my feet, slowly, and thought, I want to be a Jew. I want to be a Zionist. I want to immigrate to the Land of Israel!” As soon as he was discharged, he began to learn Hebrew, study Torah, and take on mitzvot, and a few years later he fulfilled his dream of moving to the Land of Israel.
Between Egyptian Immortality and Jewish Eternity
I once heard Rabbi Sacks tell of two ancient nations that sought eternity and found it. The Egyptians immortalized themselves by building magnificent monuments to withstand the winds of time – the pyramids, which stand to this day throughout the desert. The Israelites, too, found their way to eternity, but through a different approach. In his first address to the children of Israel, even before the Exodus is completed, Moses entreats his flock to tell their children and their children’s children what they have seen. Since then, every generation has carried out Moses’ will, and the Jewish tradition is thus maintained through the living bond between parents and children. The Jewish eternity is handed down for posterity.
Once, during a family visit with my parents in the US, my wife, Michal, took our children to the department of Egyptian art at the Met in New York. As soon as they entered the gallery, my youngest ran to a large Sphinx sculpture and sat between its paws. Of course, from that moment onward, one of the museum guards, an older, heavyset man, followed them around, keeping a close watch wherever they went. Michal told the children about the sculptures and about Egyptian culture, lowering her voice so as not to disturb the guard, but he only leaned in to listen more closely. When they emerged from the Egyptian art wing, he approached them and asked with amazement, “Is that Hebrew your children are speaking?”
The guard, a devout Christian, was well versed in the Exodus story. Yet, he was astounded, thousands of years after the fact, to meet a Jewish family from Israel whose children still speak the language of the Bible – the same language spoken by their forefathers as they made their way from Egypt to the Land of Israel. The Jewish people’s victory over Egyptian culture is undeniable: Egypt’s immortality lies behind glass in museum displays, while the Jewish eternity is alive and vital.