Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

The Exodus question that should be asked

Moments after we sit down to the first seder on Monday, we will come to one of the night’s highlights — the Four Questions.

An even more important question needs to be asked, however.

Why are we doing this at all?

The “answer” is supposed to be, “because we are commanded to do so,” beginning with Exodus 13:3-8: “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt….And you shall tell it to your child on [the anniversary of] that day.”

The problem with that “answer” is that we remember the Exodus in so many ways every day of the year. Reference to it is strewn throughout our daily prayers. We specifically recall it at least twice each day (or we should), when we recite the third paragraph of the Shema in the morning and the evening, the one referring to the wearing of tzitzit. The Talmud says that one reason for including this paragraph in the Shema is its reference to the Exodus. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate B’rachot 12b.)

The Exodus is recalled, as well, when we don tefillin, or at least it should be, according to Exodus 13:9, “so that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth — that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.”

What, then, is the point of the seder? Why is what we do this night different from what we should be doing every day and night of the year?

The commandments about tzitzit and tefillin contain a broad hint of the real answer. The Torah says this tzitzit in Numbers 15:40-41: “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.”

As we just saw, Exodus 13:9, the first reference to tefillin in the Torah, includes this: “so that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth.”

Deuteronomy 6:20-25 is more specific: “When, in time to come, your children ask you, ‘What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?’ you shall say to your children, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand….Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the Lord our God, for our lasting good and for our survival….It therefore will be to our merit…to observe faithfully all these commandments which He commanded us.”

The Torah constantly equates its commandments and their observance to the Exodus.

Shabbat is not merely a mitzvah to refrain from creative work on the seventh day of every week. It is about recognizing that every one of God’s creatures has the same right as we do to the same day of rest as we do. In other words, it is all about equality. As the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:14-15 puts it: “You shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your she-donkey, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

This restatement echoes back to Exodus 23:12, which says that “on the seventh day, you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your she-donkey may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.”

This connection is most prominently seen in the verses of Leviticus 19. We are commanded to behave in a certain way. Why? Because, as verse 19:36 says in summing up the chapter, “I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt.”

In that chapter, reverence for parents is followed by Shabbat observance, is followed by a ban on idol worship; by rules about a sacrifice; by laws about what we owe to the poor and the stranger; by a law against misusing God’s name to commit evil; by rules against fraud and robbery; by a requirement to pay a worker his or her wages on time; by laws against insulting the deaf and putting a stumbling block before the blind; by laws requiring a completely fair and unbiased justice system; by prohibiting spreading rumors about people; by a law to be actively engaged in helping those in difficult straits; and so on.

Verses 19:33-36 conclude the chapter: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God. You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity….I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules: I am the Lord.”

The enslavement was our on-the-job training to fulfill God’s hope for a better world. The Exodus from Egypt was the foundation upon which that mission was built. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians….Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be…to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (See Exodus 19:4-6.)

Rabbi Irving Greenberg once asked this question: “How can Jews testify to hope and human value when they have been continuously persecuted, hated, dispelled, destroyed? Out of the memories of the Exodus!” (See his 1988 book, “The Jewish Way,” page 36.)

That, in fact, is the point of the seder and its rituals. It is not our task on this night to recall the Exodus; we do that enough every day of the year. Our task this night is to understand why there was an Exodus, and to dwell on how that event informed who we are, and what we are supposed to do for God because of it.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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