It doesn’t take much of a Jewish education to know we are supposed to remember the Exodus from Egypt—we have all the parts of the holiday of Pesach, Shabbat and the other major holidays, all also specifically noted as being connected to our commemoration of the Exodus; and we have the obligatory daily recall, zechirat yetsiat Mitsrayim.
With Pesach on the horizon, let’s discuss other commandments the Torah itself specifically connected to our leaving Egypt. Aside from the well-known and obvious mitzvot, when and why does the Torah mention Egypt, and what does that do to our recognition and/or understanding of the role the memory of the Exodus is supposed to play in our lives?
Our Relationship with Hashem
In the first of the Aseret haDibberot, the Ten Pronouncements, Hashem introduces Himself, as it were, by saying, “I am the Lord your God (or whatever the proper translation of Hashem Elokecha is), Who took you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery.” The immediate question is why that was the reference point—isn’t it more significant that Hashem is Master and Creator of the Universe?
Rashi writes that Hashem’s taking us out is sufficient to create a lasting indebtedness, is the sufficient cause of our eternal obligation to obey Hashem completely. We don’t keep the Torah, in this view, by virtue of Hashem’s commanding presence in the order of the universe. We keep those laws, perform that service, because of a more specific personal and national debt.
This also suggests all our service of Hashem should be tinged and tinted with the memory of the Exodus. Yes, there’s an independent requirement to remember it, but the whole obligation to believe in and relate to Hashem (and, since that is the foundation for all observance, by extension all mitzvot) is founded on our national experience of this event.
What Should Have Put One Question to Rest
Ramban reminds us that this first Pronouncement is a mitzvah obligation of its own (this is widely accepted), a specific obligation on all Jews, male or female, to know and believe in Hashem. Ramban says the Exodus demonstrated, for all time, some of the key propositions of that faith, that Hashem pre-exists the world (and thus is “able” to abrogate the laws of Nature, not just manipulate them), created the world intentionally and deliberately (not as some involuntary outpouring, as Aristotle seems to assume), and Who is involved with the world, as shown by choosing the Jewish people, extricating them from Egypt with great miracles and forming a lasting covenant with them.
For Ramban, we bear a positive obligation, not legally different from many more widely observed ones, to accept important faith propositions. Sadly, many today try to dismiss Rambam’s Principles of Faith as the writings of a particularly philosophical Jewish thinker, and to claim they are not inherent to Judaism or required to be an observant Jew. Nachmanides here shows that many of the most crucial Principles are actual commandments, as much a part of the obligations of a faithful Jew as the more ritualistic ones some people find less threatening.
A Life of Servitude to Hashem
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, writing in the 19th century, takes that another step. He notes that the philosophical question of whether to believe in God is not the concern of this Pronouncement. The key point of Jewish faith, and of this Pronouncement, is that the one and unitary God is my God, Who shaped and formed me, set me up with certain obligations, and continues to be involved in the course of my life.
While many of us get caught up in the yes/no question of Existence, R. Hirsch is reminding us that that wasn’t supposed to be an issue, because our memory of Egypt, which was supposed to be fully alive for us in this area of our religious life, made clear that the right question is “what does Hashem most want me to do?”
Before we leave this topic, I would point out that Ramban believes there is also a Biblical prohibition against forgetting Hashem, Who took us out of Egypt.
For a first foray of where the Exodus should play a role, outside the narrow confines of holidays, we found the whole basis of our relationship with Hashem. Not bad. Where else?
Tefillin, a Two-Purposed Mitzvah
The Torah speaks about tefillin four times. In the two of those found in Shemot 13, the Torah mentions the Paschal sacrifice and then the offering of first-borns to Hashem. In each case, the discussion closes by saying we should keep these as a sign on our arms and heads, that Hashem took us out Egypt with a mighty hand.
The first instance, 13;9, leaves some room to be read as being about Torah in general, but throws in the memory of the Exodus. Ramban explains it to mean that placing the memory of the Exodus on our arms and heads will remind us of what Hashem did for us, which will then stimulate us to always have Torah and mitzvot in our mouths.
The mentions of the Exodus in the context of tefillin thus seem to be taking the broader awareness that tefillin create (as shown in other verses) and locating it in the experience of the Exodus. Sure, tefillin are about remembering Torah in general. But the verses in chapter 13 tell us that one of the ways tefillin draws our attention to those big ideas is by focusing us on what we might err into thinking of as a small idea, the Exodus.
We say the verse that connects tsitsit to the Exodus twice a day. What I suspect few of us know is that Sifrei, the Midrash Halachah to Bamidbar, offers etymologies that relates tsitsit conspicuously to the Exodus. First, R. Shimon b. Elazar suggests that the color is called techelet because the Egyptians’ first-born נתכלו, were diminished. Alternatively, it’s because the Egyptians themselves כלו, were destroyed, at the Sea.
Sifrei then relates the word tsitsit to Hashem’s peeking inside the Jews’ homes in Egypt, based on Shir haShirim 2;8-9, which speaks of the beloved (Hashem) looking through the windows, peeking through the lattices. The two main words about this garment, for the Sifrei, are reminders of what Hashem did for us in Egypt, whether keeping track of us or punishing our enemies.
With just three mitzvot, and twenty to come, I think we can see that there’s even more to the role the Exodus plays in our Jewish lives than we sometimes remember to remember.